Bonny Cain, Waco Independent School District superintendent, received an evaluation Thursday in the midst of public censure set off by her comments published in the Tribune-Herald last month.
The district’s trustees remained tight-lipped about the results of the evaluation. The board didn’t extend her contract, but can do so at any time. Cain’s contract runs through the 2018-19 school year. She has been with the district five years.
Trustee Cary DuPuy said he didn’t weigh the recent public outcry too heavily in the evaluation. The state provides the board with a general outline for evaluating a superintendent’s performance, which includes subjects such as community involvement, finances and education.
“Bonny has done a number of things very well in this community, and at the same time there’s a number of things that she’s struggled to impact positively,” DuPuy said. “Busy people that are getting lots of stuff done make missteps, and we’ve got to be able to accept that about them.”
The state is monitoring Waco ISD because two of its schools, J.H. Hines Elementary and Brook Avenue Elementary, have failed state academic standards four years in a row. District officials have been trying to provide answers and find solutions for their continued struggle.
Cain, along with board President Pat Atkins and Trustee Angela Tekell, told the state in a fall hearing that much of what causes the problems for the failing schools stem from the poverty in their surrounding neighborhoods.
“The one line that stood out in my mind was when (the state) told J.H. Hines principal Tra Hall, ‘Look, we have lots of campuses [in Texas] that are economically disadvantaged. What’s different about yours and why is it struggling?’ And he said, ‘Every day my students come to me from a culture of abuse, trauma and neglect.’ That’s pretty powerful.” Atkins said in the published interview.
The National Center for Education Statistics shows a significant link between students living in poverty and failing academics. The National Assessment of Educational Progress rates students’ proficiency as below basic, basic, proficient or advanced.
Of the fourth-grade students in Texas eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 19 percent performed below basic in math in 2015, compared to 5 percent of students not-eligible for free or reduced-price lunch who performed below basic.
Among the same students, 81 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored basic or better, while 95 percent of students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch scored at basic or higher.
A student is eligible for the federal reduced-price lunch program if they belong to a household that earns at or less than 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $44,863 annually for a family of four.
Most students who attend Hines and Brook Avenue live in families who live well below that income level.
More than 55 percent of the 3,266 households in Hines’ primary ZIP code earn less than $20,000 a year. Of that percentage, 27 percent, or 894 households, earn less than $10,000, and 12 percent, or 418 households, make less than $15,000. The school’s student population is 99 percent economically disadvantaged.
Brook Avenue’s enrollment zone is a 12 by eight block section West of the Brazos River that straddles two ZIP codes with similar economic hardships, one with an annual median income of $24,476 and the other at $16,697.
But residents from those school zones spoke out, saying a lack of money doesn’t always translate into poor parenting or student failure.
Former East Waco resident DeShauna Hollie, 34, grew up in East Waco and as an adult cared for her two nephews who attended Brook Avenue.
Hollie said she was raised by her grandparents in a four-bedroom apartment with 13 other people but never considered herself to be poor or neglected. Hollie attended Kendrick Elementary School and South Waco Elementary.
“I think that we often confuse poverty with neglect, and they aren’t the same,” she said. “When people see a lack of parent involvement, they automatically assume that the parent doesn’t care about their kids’ education, which I’ve never met a parent . . . who didn’t care.”
Waco ISD homeless liaison Cheryl Pooler agrees that parents are trying. Pooler said the majority of the parents she serves have multiple jobs, but says there’s a lack of affordable housing and good-paying jobs in Waco.
“I think it would be surprising to a lot of people to learn that a vast majority of my families — they are working more than one job. They still can’t make ends meet,” she said.
Brook Avenue parent Maria Sardaneta, whose son is in first grade, is a single parent and said she knows many of her fellow parents are in the same situation.
“It is hard,” Sardaneta said. “You have to struggle. . . . You want to support your child, but you have to work. You have different obligations you have to meet and sometimes that’s hard.”
But she said she resents people who classify her as low-income, because she doesn’t identify herself as poor. The parents who are working multiple jobs or long hours are building a better life for their children, she said.
“We are hardworking people,” Sardaneta said. “We’re trying to better ourselves to give a better life to our children. And sometimes they don’t see it that way and it hurts me.”