At one point during Monday night’s Waco Independent School District community meeting, a parent rose to stress how she had attended numerous meetings at academically low-performing Alta Vista Elementary School in South Waco and could personally vouch for the efforts there, including those of the teachers. Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson graciously acknowledged the compliment, then quietly noted: “There’s a difference between effort and ability.”
Indeed. In days long past, students occasionally got by in classes by showing a little genuine effort. But state-mandated testing counts on real ability, including deductive reasoning and successfully articulating thoughts, assets bolstered by strong reading skills. And with two low-performing middle schools and three elementary schools now threatened with closure by state officials, all Waco ISD teachers, staff and principals must now demonstrate raw ability. We’re reaching the realm of now or never.
Monday’s upbeat but sobering meeting was the first of three conducted by Waco ISD officials, who must soon submit to the Texas Education Agency plans to improve long-troubled campuses or risk those campuses’ closure. The latter is a consequence that Nelson — new to the district — nonetheless recognizes would be devastating to surrounding neighborhoods, already struggling in poverty: “It’d be the end of those communities. These are the lifeblood of those communities.”
Those parents in attendance Monday complained too few parents are engaged in the academic lives of their children. Possibly some hold jobs that prevent them from being more involved. Others may be resigned to the generational poverty that consumes them. Yet with the Prosper Waco anti-poverty initiative now channeling churches, nonprofits and government into strategic solutions like never before, viable pathways out of such lives are fast taking shape.
Some good ideas were aired Monday, including immersing children in early reading initiatives, even before formal schooling, and mentoring by teachers of successful campuses to those of struggling schools. Nelson underlined, too, the simple importance of teachers writing on the board each day’s lesson objective. Yet not only are these ideas not new, many have been implemented or encouraged.
While the school district now has a superintendent far more articulate, even inspirational, in rousing educators to the seriousness of the task ahead and the consequences of failure, his admonition to some educators meeting with him just before Monday’s public meeting is worthy of repeating: Superman’s not coming. If success is to be realized in next spring’s testing, it must depend on those now assembled. Nelson’s ideas for the TEA — including single-gender middle schools and realigned elementary campuses — rate debate. But educators, parents and students this school year have a chance to change the dynamics before then and defy the naysayers betting against them. Much depends on whether they fully grasp this superintendent’s message, including his insistence that poverty, for all its crippling effects, is no reason for repeatedly excusing academic failure.