Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson is used to gaping expressions of awe when a student looks up at his 6-foot-5 frame and greets him for the first time, he said.

He’s quick to put them at ease with a friendly handshake, a high-five, a fist bump or a pat on the back.

Most of the students don’t understand the man dressed to the nines in a suit and tie is the district’s new superintendent, who started in June. And some asked if Nelson was Waco’s mayor or even the president of the United States as he toured elementary and middle school classrooms Thursday morning.

He laughed and tried to explain his role to J.H. Hines Elementary School fourth- and fifth-grade students, then shifted their attention back to work by asking them who was the most important person in the room? The teacher, he said.

But to have a strong teaching staff, a school must have a strong principal, he said.

As much as his meet-and-greet moments were part of starting the first day off right, Nelson also observed whether his teachers and principals were on-point and executing expectations laid out during the past month and at Tuesday’s convocation.

“There’s a general energy in our schools that can really only come from something new, something for people to kind of rally around,” Nelson said. “I’m sure there are still critics who are like, ‘We’ll see if he’s here past Valentine’s,’ and they’re wait and see.

It’s about shifting Waco ISD’s culture, he said. His mantra of ‘hard work pays off’ is at the core of his philosophy because student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change, he said Tuesday during convocation and again as he toured as many campuses as possible.

His first year has already been dedicated to turning the district’s six improvement-required campuses around, but his philosophy has also already extended to principals leading Waco’s successful campuses, Tennyson Middle School Principal Lisa Hall said.

Tennyson is Waco’s “showcase” campus, Nelson said. The school earned seven distinctions on this year’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness ratings, the most of any Waco school and the most a school can earn for passing state accountability exams, according to Texas Education Agency reports released Tuesday. Hall is starting her fourth year as principal.

“Grown-ups are the biggest stumbling block to any kid’s success. It’s not the kids, and I’ve had to tell teachers that,” Hall said. “We finally figured it out. I asked the leadership team last year why we keep some first-year teachers and other first-year teachers we don’t keep. What is the difference, y’all? It’s a single thing. What is it? Ownership. The ones who take ownership in the classroom. Those are worth keeping.”

Nelson said that ownership is the same thing he looks for with his principals. If a principal’s attitude is nonchalant and complacent, they may not last too long in Waco ISD, he said.

He has already seen that lack of initiative in some of his current campus leadership and wants to figure out whether it’s because employees don’t have what they need for success or simply don’t care, he said.

Cesar Chavez Middle School Principal Suzanne Hamilton said Nelson’s message has given her strength during the last month. Hamilton doesn’t like to talk about it much, but she recently lost one of her closest friends in the shooting death of a married couple at houseboat on Lake Waco.

Whether Nelson is talking to her one on one or before more than 2,300 Waco ISD employees, Nelson’s positive message is the same and that keeps her chin up as she works through her grief and leads the teachers who educate her more than 900 students, Hamilton said. And that’s exactly what her friend would have wanted, she said.

“We already come with this intrinsic motivation anyway, but he makes it very easy to picture him doing what we’re doing,” Hamilton said Thursday morning. “He doesn’t seem far removed from it. It seems like he could come on campus, blend in with the rest of us and you wouldn’t have that, ‘Superintendent’s on campus, so everyone straighten their ties.’ … He just has that ease about him that makes you feel comfortable doing what you’re doing, and I honestly think his joy of what he’s doing is infectious.”

With the first day out of the way, Nelson plans on visiting all of Waco ISD’s schools on a weekly basis, he said. He will also hold two principal meetings during the first week of September focused on leadership and management skills, he said.

His focus is not on rationalizing why the district can’t be successful, including its high number of economically disadvantaged students, he said. He is focused on creating a competitive, positive atmosphere to drive the district’s success. It starts with the principals, he said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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