Sunday’s Trib report on enrollment at local school districts and charter schools might at first glance seem to offer little new. Yes, enrollment at school districts such as Midway and China Spring continues to grow. Yes, charter schools are drawing more and more students. Yes, student numbers are relatively flat in Waco Independent School District. In the old days, we labeled this scenario “white flight.” Some of it likely still is.
But the Trib report shows something this paper has repeatedly stressed in other areas ranging from voter ID legislation to hunger initiatives: While race may well continue to play a part in where at least some parents place their children, the broader situation goes beyond racial dynamics. New Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson shows keen insight in recognizing that poverty is the pivotal complicating factor in fixing what today ails this district of nearly 15,000 students.
In 2004, Waco ISD was 17 percent white in a county 65 percent white. Today it’s a little less than 9 percent white. And whatever motives initially caused whites to flee this inner-city school district and purchase nice homes in newer towns and subdivisions, the result is not only a heavily minority population in Waco ISD but one mired in chronic poverty. Much of this widespread poverty has gripped the families left behind for generations.
To his credit, Nelson recognizes the way forward must embrace strategies that operate on two key fronts. First, educators must do far better in educating youngsters and preparing them for the considerable workforce challenges ahead. They must recognize the fiercely competitive nature of all they do — because if educators fail while other districts and charter schools succeed, they not only will help get local schools shuttered but will add further to the woes of surrounding neighborhoods.
Second, strategies must reach beyond school children and enlist struggling families, neighborhood organizations and churches that, when working in concert, can mightily overcome at least some of the handicaps of poverty. As Trib columnist Mike Miller noted last week, it’s time for local nonprofits and church groups to step up to the plate in meaningful fashion or consign themselves as irrelevant and abject failures. All this includes working into the mix such promising assets as the dual-credit college program expanded by local voters that can give poor but smart, hard-working kids a big jump in life.
The Washington Post this week reports that Americans — especially wealthy whites — “vastly overestimate progress toward racial economic equality despite evidence of persistent gaps between black and white workers when it comes to hourly wages, annual income and household wealth.” The report by Yale researchers is especially stunning, the Post noted, in the wake of census data from last week that shows that African Americans are the only racial group still making less than they did in 2000.
Yes, racial dynamics simmer beneath the surface in any discussion of poverty. But Nelson’s outreach demands that educators, students and neighborhoods focus strongly on poverty to keep Waco ISD vital in its role. Significant dividends may well erode many racial inequities.