As families listened Monday evening to Waco Independent School District administrators present a plan on how to save five schools from possible closure this year, one thing became clear: the families have more questions than the district has answers.
The thought of possibly closing five of the district’s 23 campuses is unbearable, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said as he went over a proposed plan to save the campuses during one of four simultaneous community meetings held throughout the district Monday night.
The town hall-style sessions were held at Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, Indian Spring Middle School, and a joint session for J.H. Hines Elementary and G.W. Carver Middle schools was held at the City of Waco Multi-purpose Facility, all of which are campuses facing closure if the schools don’t meet state accountability standards in May.
“It’s really a situation we would never hope to truly have to embrace and make decisions regarding the future of our schools,” Nelson said.
The meetings were meant to provide Waco ISD officials with feedback from parents and residents before the school board votes Thursday to approve a course of action.
But as Nelson spoke about the potential plan for individualized instruction, grade-level realignment, early childhood centers, a districtwide literacy plan, a blended learning model that could cost millions of dollars and a new in-district charter partnership with the nonprofit Prosper Waco, he also spoke about the importance of the district staying true to core values at a time of ever-changing accountability systems and unknowns.
Public schools face constant turbulence when it comes to state accountability systems that change every few years, Nelson said. And Waco ISD is trying to figure out a game plan to keep the foundering campuses open at a time when the state is about to implement a new accountability system this year.
The system will be based on letter grades A through F, but what Waco ISD officials don’t know is how it will be calculated, Nelson said. And Waco ISD officials won’t know the overall performance of the campuses until results are released in August, when the new grading system begins for districts across the state.
“We can’t even get focused on the exact metrics that we need,” Nelson said. “That’s the way the test works, is you become very diagnostic and prescriptive of each kid. Does this kid need to improve in their math? Do they need to improve in their reading? Improve in their writing? And how much do they need to improve? But as I stand here today, we don’t even know the new standards and that’s frustrating.”
At Brook Avenue Elementary School, a crowd of roughly 80 parents, students and Waco ISD faculty joined in the community discussion. Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer laid out the administration’s proposed plan, emphasizing the plan was in the beginning stages of approval.
“I want to emphasize that this is a conversation and we are early in this process, so that is why we are coming to you tonight to hear your feedback,” DeBeer said. “We really want to make sure your ideas are reflected in these recommendations as we move forward. We absolutely believe that Brook Avenue and all of our other improvement-required campuses can meet state standards.”
But parents and guardians expressed concern about potential issues with campus realignments, transportation to possible early childhood centers and the increased school transition created by the proposed centers created through the Prosper Waco partnership.
“I don’t think that everything about the new campuses will be completely new,” DeBeer said. “One of the pieces we would have to resolve would be where teachers are and (which) teachers would be moving, but I think there would be some familiar faces at that campus. We also have to do things to bridge those changes.”
DeBeer emphasized the superintendent’s plan would be fine-tuned during the 2018-19 school year and major changes would come by fall 2019, he said. But back at the Multi-purpose Facility, Nelson said state officials were pushing for the plan to be implemented by fall of this year. He said he’s working with officials to get more time to implement the changes if the failing schools don’t achieve the needed test scores.
Parents at Brook Avenue Elementary said it’s clear the school district is in a “state of urgency” and hoped families would help increase their students’ commitment to education this year. Families also questioned the potential partnership with Prosper Waco and wondered if educational leadership would be the focus.
But DeBeer said specifics of the partnership aren’t yet clear because the district hasn’t received a clearly defined picture or structure from the Texas Education Agency. The TEA has made proposed rules available for comment about what an operation like the proposed partnership would look like. A public hearing will be held Friday, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.
At Indian Spring Middle School, band director Stephanie Salazar said she went to see the plan in writing, but walked away feeling like more details were needed.
“It’s better to know what the probability is about whether it’s going to happen, (rather) than finding out in the summer and not knowing what’s going to happen to my job,” Salazar said. “You know, what am I going to be doing next year? Am I going to stay in this area next year or what the plan is? ... I feel like they have a baseline for what’s going on, but I just wish there were a little more details for all these bold changes.”
The planning process to stave off closure of the campuses has been confusing, like building an airplane while it’s being flown, Nelson said, as he has in previous community meetings. As state regulations change, districts should be able to hold on to key instructional values and practices that never change to overcome the obstacles and keep schools open, Nelson said.
Those values include high expectations for every student, from advanced academics to special education; building academic vocabulary and literacy skills; intensive curriculum planning by teachers; advanced questioning and more, he said.
“I would really like to increase awareness, understanding and discomfort, if you will, with our teachers and principals,” Nelson said. “I talk about the work being difficult. We know it’s difficult. I want to spread the discomfort to our community. I want you to have higher levels of awareness, so that you can help us fix this issue. It takes a whole village.”
But with the future of the district in mind, Nelson said he also wants to increase the pressure to be successful on Waco ISD parents and students.
“I want them to know, ‘You’ve got to step up to be in public schools today,’ ” Nelson said. “We’re under attack and there’s this movement to take the money the state gives to public schools and give it to private and charter schools. I’m not criticizing private or charter schools. … The problem I have is there will be kids born right here in this ZIP code. They’re going to get out of the hospital and come home to a momma and a daddy and they have no control over where they were born, and if they go to a public school, it must be of a certain standard.”
Waco ISD will host one more community meeting before the school board votes on the plan Thursday. The plan will then be sent to the state for final approval by March 1. If the schools pass in May, the plan won’t be necessary, but it’s unclear how much of the plan might still be used to help the district be more successful, DeBeer said last week.
The last community meeting will start at 6 p.m. Tuesday at South Waco Elementary School, 2104 Gurley Lane.