Pamela Rivera, 59, the pastor of St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church for about 10 years, is running to represent Place 2 on the Waco school board, a post that represents much of East Waco. Previously. she worked in Capitol Metro in Austin for almost 20 years. In an interview with the Trib editorial board, she discusses the importance of parental engagement in public education; how churches can become more involved in battling poverty; and her desire to ensure black children are treated equally. The election is May 9.
Q Why are you running for school board?
A I’m really concerned about our children, the education they’re receiving and the fact some of our schools are not doing well. I want to make sure our kids are getting the best education they can get. Some of our parents are not as involved as they need to be, and perhaps I can help create some programs that will help them become more interested in their children’s education, especially in the African-American community.
Q And we have 10 schools in Waco ISD not meeting standards.
A I’m pastor of a local church in East Waco, and we have been adopt-a-school partners with J.H. Hines Elementary School for a very long time. One reason I want to be on the school board is to make sure that all of our children and all of our schools are treated equally. I read some articles last year about how many of the African-American children were sent to alternative schools for behavior when some of that could have been handled in a different way. I want to make sure our African-American children aren’t sent for any little reason.
Q Isn’t that the school where they worked out a plan to bus some of the students there to other campuses in hope of both relieving class size at J.H. Hines while allowing bused students to benefit from educational environments at other campuses? How did all that work out in your opinion?
A It didn’t. Now, I kind of dropped the ball on following up on all that because we were looking at the poverty in East Waco because that 76704 ZIP code had the highest. But there was a lot of controversy in regard to that and I don’t think that happened. [Editor: The 2012 J.H. Hines Elementary School program is alive and well.]
Q Then-school trustee Alex Williams was not happy about it, but my understanding is some of the mothers of students there wanted to try it. Others heard the word “busing” and, well —
A Right. I think what happens with those ideas is when the community is not involved in the process of actually planning that, then we can get to a point where we feel like people are coming in and telling us what we’re going to do rather than making us a part of the process. And I think some of us who were in the era of busing — well, it has a tendency to hit some sore spots. I think what those who opposed this wanted was to make sure that all students at that school got an opportunity to see something different as opposed to picking just some.
Q Let’s look at some of the things you’re raising. For instance, parental engagement — what works and what doesn’t in the African-American community?
A We have younger parents, and sometimes younger parents have busier lives outside the home. Sometimes they’re trying to work, and that kind of eats into their time. I was thinking of the possibility of a “parent academy” where parents can work alongside their children as they are working in certain areas of school. The parents would also have assignments that would parallel with the student so that parent, child and teacher are actually working together.
Q Yes, but as you know — particularly in parts of North Waco, East Waco and South Waco — parents might be holding down two or three jobs. How do you make this idea work when parents possibly don’t have time—
A There may be opportunities for weekend events. Superintendent Bonny Cain approached some of us pastors in the East Waco community to meet with her and help address some of the issues she’s concerned about. That may be one way of getting area churches involved. Everything doesn’t have to be done through the week. Perhaps there could be programs on a Saturday afternoon or morning. It could be an unconventional time. I don’t know exactly how that would work, but—
Q You mentioned the churches. There’s been a lot of talk in the Prosper Waco anti-poverty movement about churches, especially in poor neighborhoods. Just how involved are churches?
A I can speak of St. Luke, where I pastor. One thing we began to do was look at the needs. We partner with Caritas of Waco and we receive training to help the parents obtain better access to benefits. We help them fill out their applications for those benefits. But we believe not just in giving a person a fish to eat for a day but teaching that person how to fish. We participate in The Lift at First Baptist Church of Waco. We are not there to help people fill out applications but to help with career planning.
Q I’ve been to it. It’s like a clearinghouse where you can get benefits and training and such. I think there’s something like 40 nonprofits and agencies.
A Yes, so we have a table there where we encourage those who come through and might be interested in college or going back to college. We help them figure out what sort of path they might want to take.
Q Impressive. Is there anything else your church does in helping the school district, which is kind of in trouble with some of its schools?
A When I was assigned to St. Luke, some of our children were struggling in school. We had several failing. So we started a mentoring and tutoring program at the church. Wednesday evenings, kids were staying or coming and we would help them. We had quite a few retired educators who are part of our congregation. We also have current teachers in the congregation.
Q What assets do you bring to the Waco school board?
A I think I bring creativity to the job. Our church has done some creative things that it had never done in the past, such as having a mentoring and tutoring ministry. I mean, such a ministry is nothing new, but for that church it was. And so thinking outside the box is one thing that I have been able to do well. We were one of the churches to help get a GD program in East Waco and we still work with that program.
Q When the school board was finalizing raises for the coming school year, school board member Cary DuPuy asked if the board possibly wasn’t jumping the gun. He suggested putting that money into additional staffing. After all, a lot of the complaints of current teachers is there isn’t enough time and there isn’t enough staff for everything they want to do. Should adding the number of teachers take priority over pay raises at this juncture?
A I’d really need a little more time to weigh which would be better. On one hand, you want to maintain the teachers you have because if you continue to have turnover, it affects the classroom and the students and how they perceive their school and principal in building relationships. Turnover can be a real setback. But then on the other hand, to have more teachers to help manage a classroom or even shrink a classroom — that also is extremely important. If you have one person who is trying to teach 30 students, that can also be an issue, so, whooo! I don’t want to give a knee-jerk reaction, but I can see both points. I think one thing that is relevant is how much our teachers are making compared with other districts and what they’re paying their teachers.
Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.
Editor’s note: A third candidate in the Waco Independent School District Place 2 election twice failed to show up for interviews with the Waco Tribune-Herald editorial board.