Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson gave the first detailed look Thursday night at his recommendations for saving five Waco Independent School District campuses from possible closure by the state.

The literacy-driven plan with an emphasis on early childhood education involves repurposing several campuses and partnering with the local nonprofit Prosper Waco.

Nelson presented the transformation plan to the school board Thursday night. The board is expected to vote on the plan next week, after taking feedback from parents and residents at seven community meetings between Saturday and Tuesday.

The plan will then go the state by March 1 for final approval, but district officials will not know how much of the plan will need to be implemented until results of state accountability exams come out in August. If the schools pass, the plans will not be needed to avoid closure.

“We’re basically being asked to build an airplane and finish building it in order to land it while we’re flying it,” Nelson said.

If approved by the state, the plan would keep Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School open another two years.

Each campus 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 May, but a new law passed last summer gave school districts a chance to come up with an alternative plan to fend off potential closures.

If the schools pass, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said it is unclear how much of the recommended changes might still be used going forward.

Of the strategies, the biggest changes include turning some campuses into early childhood development centers, allowing Prosper Waco to coordinate wrap-around services with other nonprofits and creating a thorough blended learning model across the district, Nelson said.

Early Childhood Centers

Research shows that children living in poverty have heard about 30 million fewer words by age 3 than their more affluent peers, according to a written presentation on Nelson’s plan.

With more than 80 percent of the district’s student population considered economically disadvantaged, and with a little more than half of third-graders reading on grade level, Nelson recommended realigning grade levels at four elementary campuses to create two new early childhood schools.

“Our plan is to identify 3-year-olds in specific zip codes and neighborhoods, and we want to invite them to be part of a full-day, prekindergarten pilot program to hopefully prepare 3-year-olds to be pre-K ready by the time they’re 4 years old,” Nelson said. “We think between 3 years old and third grade, if we will focus on literacy, reading and writing, it will help us eliminate the achievement gap we currently see.”

Attendance zones would not be redrawn, but students would be re-grouped by grade level at some elementary schools, DeBeer said.

Brook Avenue Elementary would go from serving prekindergarten through fifth-grade students to serving prekindergarten through first-grade students in the Brook Avenue and J.H. Hines Elementary attendance zones, and would host the new prekindergarten pilot program.

It would also host a pilot dual language program for a section of kindergartners starting in fall 2018.

J.H. Hines would then change to serve second- through fourth-grade students in those attendance zones, and the dual language program would follow the students who start it at Brook Avenue as they advance through the grades, Nelson’s plan states.

Alta Vista Elementary would go through a similar repurposing, except it would serve students through second grade in the Alta Vista and South Waco Elementary attendance zones. South Waco would serve third- through fifth-grade students in those zones.

Cedar Ridge Elementary, Dean Highland Elementary, Provident Heights Elementary and West Avenue Elementary would serve students in prekindergarten through fourth grade under the new plan.

Fifth-graders zoned to those campuses would attend Indian Spring Middle School, along with fifth-graders currently zoned to G.W. Carver Middle School. G.W. Carver would serve seventh and eighth grade students in the Indian Spring and G.W. Carver attendance zones, the plan states.

With those changes, the district has also partnered with a national literacy expert to develop a districtwide literacy plan, Nelson said.

“Literacy is the biggest problem we have as a city. You see it in 3-year-olds, and you see it all the way through adult literacy problems today,” Nelson said. “When you go to McLennan County jail cells and you start to identify the problems we have with crime and poverty and some of the other serious societal issues, they all stem back to people not being able to read, to write or to pursue some type of career, technical trade or post-secondary education.

“We’re developing a districtwide literacy plan not only focusing on closing the achievement gap in reading in pre-K through third grade, but we want to have a literacy plan that even goes to our parents.”

Prosper Waco’s role

The Prosper Waco board voted Wednesday to help the district in whatever way necessary to transform the campuses, Nelson said. Nelson is on the Prosper Waco board, and school board President Pat Atkins serves as chairman. Both recused themselves from the vote, Nelson said.

The details of the district’s partnership with the nonprofit are still being sorted out, and no contract for a partnership has been negotiated.

“The Prosper Waco initiative was envisioned as the Waco community stepping forward to address some of the biggest challenges we have as a community, including the area of education, and we still stand ready to partner with the school district to make that happen,” Prosper Waco Executive Director Matthew Polk said on behalf of his board. “And when I say we, I don’t just mean the Prosper Waco backbone organization I represent. I mean, we the community.”

Other strategies

Other strategies include a renewed focus on enhancing special programs, including the bilingual, advanced academic, special education, career and technology, fine arts and athletics programs. The district is considering a blended learning model to get more technology in students’ hands to push their literacy skills forward and allow for individualized progression through lessons. But school officials have not figured out how to fund the seven-figure idea yet.

DeBeer said Thursday’s meeting marks the beginning of discussion on the plan. The seven community meetings will help refine the plan moving forward.

But Nelson said no matter what, closing a school is not an option. He emphasized that every campus is equally important and that underperforming schools would receive a higher level of focus, more support from administrative staff and more professional development.

“We won’t rest until we improve these schools. I believe the community deserves a public school system where every school meets or exceeds all state or federal expectations,” Nelson said. “It embarrasses me there are people who perceive the Waco Independent School District has being some type of inferior product. It’s not true.”

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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