Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson plans to recommend that Waco Independent School District form an in-district charter system with the local nonprofit Prosper Waco come Jan. 25 in an effort to stave off the possibility of closure for five of the district’s struggling campuses, he announced at Thursday night’s board meeting.

News also came Thursday that the district is one of seven on a preliminary list of recipients for a $450,000 Texas Education Agency grant that would help the district through the planning process for the potential partnership.

Waco ISD applied for the grant Nov. 30, and TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill made the announcement to district officials during Thursday’s meeting.

“While the announcement is preliminary, there are still numerous details to be negotiated with the Texas Education Agency,” Nelson said. “This is an important development in our work to ensure that Alta Vista, Brook Avenue, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver and Indian Spring remain open.”

Each campus has failed state academic standards for five consecutive years or more, which leaves them open to closure by the state if they do not pass this year. But a law passed this year allows the district to come up with an alternative plan, like partnering with a nonprofit to operate the campuses. If the schools fail again but the plan is approved, the partnership could keep the doors open an additional two years, pending improvement, Nelson said.

“Since the first day of school, I’ve been pretty clear that I firmly believe all five of these schools can meet state standards this year,” Nelson said. “We’re improving the quality of instruction daily. We’re holding adults accountable for change and we’re raising expectations for principals, teachers, staff and most importantly, our students. Make no mistakes though, this is very complex work.

“It might take more than one year for all of our schools to get there. If that happens, and one of these five schools needs more time, we’re going to make sure they’ll have the time to accomplish our goals.”

But if the district does not show it is coming up with an alternative solution, and one of the schools still fails to meet state standards with ratings come out in August, TEA will either close the school or the school board will be replaced with an appointed board of managers, Nelson said, repeating a point he made during community meetings held in October. Students complete state exams in May, and if the schools pass, the alternative plan won’t be necessary.

No official decision will be made until the Jan. 25 board meeting about the possibility of negotiating a contract with Prosper Waco to oversee operations of the five schools, Nelson said. The district will host several town hall meetings with Prosper Waco to hear resident feedback before Jan. 25, Nelson said. Dates for the town hall meetings are still being determined, Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

The district must submit its plan to the state for final approval by March 1.

“If our negotiations with the TEA are successful, the grant will provide funding as we plan to implement that partnership and other reform ideas,” Nelson said. “There’s an incredible network of nonprofit organizations here in Texas, and I’ve been humbled by how many organizations have stepped forward to offer their resources, expertise and ideas in support of our beloved students.”

The district wants a partner that can coordinate wrap-around services provided by a variety of organizations, he said. Prosper Waco might be the best fit because of the its model of addressing issues in education, health and financial security through a collaborative effort with other organizations, Nelson said.

“For too many of our students, food insecurity, inadequate housing, lack of transportation and access to health care have become barriers to their learning,” Nelson said. “We want to be focused on being diagnostic and prescriptive for every student we have as we address and seek and ultimately obtain all of our academic goals.”

More than 80 percent of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged, and Prosper Waco already has several initiatives established addressing ongoing needs, according to its website. Executive director Matthew Polk said in an email to the Tribune-Herald last month the nonprofit is ready and willing to help if asked.

“Our board has told Dr. Nelson that we’re ready to step up that partnership however needed to serve students on the campuses that could be closed if they fail to meet state standards this school year,” Polk wrote.

Nelson met with Prosper Waco’s executive committee about the idea Thursday morning, he said. But he emphasized Prosper Waco’s own board of directors must also approve the idea before the district can move forward. Waco ISD board President Pat Atkins is also president of Prosper Waco’s board, and Nelson is a member of Prosper Waco’s board, according to the nonprofit’s website.

“Two thoughts. No 1. is in reference to the transformation zone grant. I know most of the leadership team and cabinet is here. That was a very short turnaround, and each of you is to be commended, along with the grants department for getting that amount of detail to the TEA where we were one of seven districts selected to move onto this next step,” Atkins said. “Secondly, I want to commend you, Dr. Nelson, for your leadership and being responsive to the concerns we heard from the community and from this board in trying to come up with a plan, first and foremost, to keep these schools open and secondly, to keep these schools under local leadership, local control, so this community has a say in the direction and action of these public schools. I look forward to your next report on your negotiations with Prosper Waco.”

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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