Briana, an 11-year-old at South Waco Elementary School, walked into her classroom with more frustration than her mentor, 89-year-old Mary Ila Colvin, had ever seen before.
The pair has met each week for an hour, going into their fifth school year now, just so Colvin can check in and see how Briana is doing. But this meeting was different. Colvin asked Briana whether she wanted to use colored pencils to express herself, as she had seen Briana do in the past to help her open up.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you draw a picture and show me how mad you are?’ She took the red pencil and beared down so hard she went through several pages in the notebook and drew a very angry Briana,” said Colvin, who didn’t mention Briana’s last name because she’s a minor. “It turned out somebody had told her she’s always going to remain in poverty.”
I said, ‘Oh my, you are angry. Can you draw me a picture of the normal Briana I like to see?’ She took the blue pencil and drew a picture of the smiling Briana. Interestingly enough, she’s got these beautiful, long eyelashes and she put eyelashes on her drawing. I said, ‘Briana, whether or not you get out of poverty is entirely up to you. You’ve got the smarts. You can do it if you will stay in school and do your work. And if you graduate high school, and make good enough grades, they have scholarships for you.’ That’s what I’m trying to pound through her head — to keep working.”
Though the act of allowing Briana to express herself was simple and small, it’s an example of community support that has played an integral part in creating a culture of change at South Waco Elementary in the past four years, South Waco Principal Twana Lee said.
The school, once at risk of being closed by the state, met state academic accountability standards for the first time in three years, Lee said, heading into her fourth year as principal.
The school serves 400 students, and more than 90 percent are economically disadvantaged.
The school’s turnaround didn’t happen overnight, and the elements that have worked so far can’t be bottled up and distributed to other schools, Lee said. But, other struggling schools can take some of the lessons they have learned.
Waco ISD has seven campuses on the Texas Education Agency’s “improvement required” list for academic accountability.
Strong support system
The South Waco campus has always had strong partnerships with its community members, Lee said. But once teachers, neighbors, parents and friends began taking part in transformation committees, which helped with the school’s state-initiated turnaround plan, Lee began to see a change of minds and attitudes at the school, she said.
Each committee worked with two of the district’s struggling campuses, starting at the beginning of 2016.
“That’s when we kind of started seeing people, not just people who were connected to South Waco Elementary but connected to the community, who cared what was going on in South Waco,” Lee said.
After a first general meeting to discuss the overall goal, the South Waco committee dug deep into what Lee called critical success factors to help the campus function well and have high student achievement.
A teacher-based transformation committee then broke the factors down by grade level, giving input on what needed to change with parents, with students and with themselves. The committee then presented its assessment to community members who were able to add an outsider perspective, she said.
“One of the things was parent communication because we send things home with kids, but they don’t always make it — pieces of paper that get left at school, thrown away or in a backpack that a parent never goes through,” Lee said, adding teachers had training during the summer on how to make the school’s website more active and informative, and are implementing other changes.
The year before last, the campus was just a few scores short of meeting the academic standard, she said, and that was hard to face. But continued support pushed the school to its goal last year.
“You have to be able to talk to the kids, and relay, ‘You’re almost right there,’ ” Lee said, wiping tears away with a tissue. “Even as a teacher, you have to be like, ‘OK, catch a breath and keep on working hard.’ To really see that hard work pay off, that’s really something to bask in. It tells you that no matter what, there’s hope. You just have to work hard, push people a little bit and get a lot of people involved, and it can happen.”
Local groups have been instrumental in getting people involved and helping the school implement the community’s suggestions and work back into compliance with state standards, Lee said.
Colvin is part of the Kids Hope International program, organized by Julie Carter, a Seventh and James Baptist Church member who said she understands teachers can’t do it all.
About 15 people in the program each take an hour a week to sit down with one at-risk student — the same student every week for an entire school year — to work on academics, do activities or even just be a listening ear, Carter said. This will be the fifth year for the program to be in South Waco, and all the mentors are screened, trained and matched with specific students, she said.
“The longer you stay in a mentoring relationship with a child, the higher rate of success for that child,” Carter, a retired teacher, said. “Our main goal is to just provide a loving and caring relationship with a child who needs that, who needs a friend for whatever reason. Inevitably, that includes academic help.”
Colvin, who raised three daughters and taught at Baylor University, joined the program not long after her husband died. She knew this was something she just had to do after she heard Carter present the program at church, she said.
Briana met Colvin shortly after Briana’s grandmother died. That was in first grade. She was living with her grandmother at the time, and soon her uncle took over guardianship, Colvin said.
‘Love at first sight’
“We seemed to make friends right at first. She’s a very bright young girl and in the Gifted and Talented program. So, I had a challenge because she is so smart and she is streetwise, too,” Colvin said, showing off a selfie taken with Briana. “She was very good at manipulating at first, which I caught onto right away, and we worked through that. For my part, it was love at first sight, and she’s a precious little girl.”
Colvin became one of Briana’s few constant role models in third grade, when her uncle fell ill and passed away, she said.
“She knows I love her, and you can’t come on too strong. But it wasn’t long until she was letting me hug her and tell her I loved her,” Colvin said, holding a handwritten card made by Briana that simply read, “Miss Mary, Thank you for loving me.”
Carter’s program isn’t the only community effort showing up in schools, and not every child at South Waco is facing circumstances similar to Briana, said Lee and Carter. Some of South Waco’s recent success has been credited to a simple effort made by Bryan Dalco, pastor of One Fellowship United Methodist Church, to rally support and get anyone interested involved.
Dalco’s focus is just getting students to learn they don’t have to let socioeconomic statuses define them in any part of their lives, he said. He knows all they need sometimes is a little nudge in the right direction, Dalco said.
He spends time every Wednesday mentoring South Waco Elementary boys, along with other church members, by teaching them life lessons and exposing them to different career possibilities. He has spoken publicly about the role of a community in watching out for the lives that will drive the future, but the biggest thing he contributes to South Waco’s success is the community effort simply to show up and become involved in everyday events, Dalco said.
“It’s important we start there. We can’t wait until they’re teenagers,” Dalco said. “It’s easy to point the finger, and I see that. So many people point the finger at the education system, but I think we have to do more than that. We have to get involved. If we want to see that change, we all have to bring about that change.”
Dalco is quick to say his efforts aren’t tied directly to his ministry. He says he’s motivated by that old proverb “It takes a village” and how proud he is of the teachers who serve the students every day.
Dalco didn’t have a father in the house, and his hard-working mother couldn’t make it to everything. But he had positive role models throughout his life, he said. He wouldn’t be the pastor he is today without the help he received in school from someone who cared. He wouldn’t have even gone to college, he said.
Having a mentor
His high school’s director of student activities took Dalco under his wing, and the two met almost every day in his office to talk about his life.
“I didn’t really make up my mind to go to college until the end of my junior year. I was taking welding, and my plan was to be a welder,” Dalco said. “But for four years of high school, I would always go to his office and I would always eye his college ring. I’d look at that ring and I thought the ring was this awesome ring. We would talk and talk and talk, and he was guiding me and shaping me. Finally, I decided to go to college and ended up going to his college. When I graduated, he passed that ring down to me. I always had people help, tremendously, and it changed my entire world.”
As Lee thinks about Colvin’s and Dalco’s stories, and the dozens of others out there that prove change is possible, she said her staff and teachers will keep those possibilities in focus as the school year continues.
“The more our kids see people who have been in situations like themselves, who make themselves prominent in the school buildings and show up, communicate with them and show them some love — it’s all about a listening ear,” Lee said, adding holding a child accountable to their goals is equally important.
“How many kids, no matter where you’re from, would love to have someone who listens to you. Someone you can have that private conversation with and who will build you up in the process. There are a lot of kids who need that second ear. It’s not that our parents don’t provide that for them. There are just some things we don’t want our parents or our teachers to know. Start with the student. Have them set goals and really believe in themselves. If a child doesn’t believe in themselves, they won’t reach their full potential.”