Waco ISD's first day of school

Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson visits with students Thursday morning at J.H. Hines Elementary School on the first day of classes.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte

A few weeks ago I attended a welcome and “get to know you” reception for our new Waco ISD Superintendent, Marcus Nelson. The event, sponsored by the Waco NAACP and the local chapter of educator sorority Phi Delta Kappa Inc. was a terrific success. Peaches Henry, NAACP president, told me they had put out 50 chairs before the event — by the time Nelson rose to speak they needed 200. Nelson made some fans for himself that night. His introductory speech was masterful: full of humor, passion, challenge and confidence. His speech wasn’t exactly a sermon, but there were plenty of “amens” from the congregation as he shared key elements of his educational philosophy.

A few days later I happened to be walking out of a different meeting with school board member Norman Manning. I told him I thought they might have hit a homerun with Nelson, and Manning agreed. As we were talking, though, he mentioned some other conversations he has had about our new superintendent. He told me several people had been asking, “Well, if he’s so great — why does he want to come HERE?”

Why here? I don’t know Marcus Nelson yet, and I can’t read his mind, but I can think of at least three big reasons why a superb educational leader in the prime of his career would want to come to Waco, Texas.

First, if you believe in the power of education, Waco is exactly where you want to be. Sure, there are easier places to work. There are school systems with more money. There are schools where the students have more advantages. There are probably even some schools where, honestly, the students are going to be fine if you are even a moderately competent educator. But where’s the sport in that?

The purpose of public education is not to perpetuate the status quo. It is to perpetuate the dream — the dream that a person, any person, starting from any circumstances, can work hard and achieve and build a good life. Waco is a place where “the rubber meets the road” when it comes to that dream. Waco is a place where educators make a huge difference in students’ lives .

Second, there is plenty to build on in Waco. I’m an outside observer, but I have some favorites: The Income Tax Prep program at the A.J. Moore Academy at University High; The Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy (GWAMA), the Greater Waco Health Career Academy (GWACHA) and the new Construction Trades Academy; the fine arts programs including the amazing musicals; our support for homeless students … the list goes on. We have terrific students at WISD. When they are given the opportunity, they can knock your socks off. We also have some terrific educators who are working and innovating every day to give them those opportunities.

Finally, the community of Waco needs a strong school district and we know it. I get phone calls and emails regularly from people who are moving to Waco and want the “inside scoop” on living here. I have not had one of these conversations yet that did not end up being a conversation about school districts. These conversations reinforce for me what we already know: Any community that expects to thrive must have a strong school district and Waco expects to thrive.

Our community has shown it is willing to join in the work of building up the school district. Through community-wide efforts such as the Education Alliance, that has now become a part of Prosper Waco, we have been rallying support for years. Programs such as Communities in Schools and tutoring programs sponsored by various churches and community organizations stand ready to help.

In 2015 our community showed its support for WISD by passing a Tax Ratification to direct new financial resources into the district — resources that have been used to improve literacy programs; to explore and implement positive, effective ways to work on behavioral issues; and to provide outstanding dual credit opportunities to students.

Certainly, Waco ISD has its challenges, and we are showing that we have the wisdom and the will to face those challenges head on. By all accounts, Marcus Nelson did his homework before accepting the job as superintendent of our school district. I think he saw a terrific opportunity in Waco, and was smart to jump on it.

For the first day of school the Waco NAACP organized a group of us to “greet the scholars” at J.H. Hines Elementary. As we welcomed the children back to school and wished them a wonderful school year, Nelson showed up to do the same. I had the honor of introducing him to pastor Pam Rivera of St. Luke A.M.E. Church. She welcomed him warmly to Waco, and as he acknowledged the welcome he lowered his voice a bit to say seriously, “We have a lot of work to do.”

She didn’t hesitate in her response, “and plenty of people who want to help.” Amen, pastor!

Ashley Bean Thornton has been involved in efforts with local businesses to provide foundational employment as part of Prosper Waco’s broader work. She is also manager of www.actlocallywaco.org, which champions civic improvement and job opportunities.