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Staff photo — Ernesto Garcia  

Baylor running back Trestan Ebner evades a tackle by Oklahoma State safety Kolby Peel in the second half of their game played Nov. 3. Ebner said he wants to reach a bowl as a reward for the seniors.

On busy Black Friday, Waco retailers compete to fill void left by Toys R Us
 Mike Copeland  / 

Target had long lines. Shoppers were shoulder-to-shoulder at Walmart. Long lines of vehicles snaked into Central Texas Marketplace late Thursday night and early Friday morning, as Black Friday once again proved irresistible.

But what about Richland Mall, the covered retail center at Waco Drive and State Highway 6, around since 1980 but immersed in transition? Sears, an anchor from the beginning, seemingly has more lives than a Craftsman socket wrench with a lifetime guarantee. For now, Waco’s Sears has dodged the ax the Illinois-based retailing giant continues to swing, slashing stores and jobs nationwide amid mounting debt and sluggish sales that forced it into bankruptcy last month.

“I grew up with Sears, Craftsman and Kenmore appliances,” said Jamey Davis, 50, a Waco native now living in Bay City and working in the petrochemical industry.

He visited in-laws Friday and took son Colby, 17, to Sears, where they lingered several minutes in the tool section.

“I was telling him that when I left in ’93, half the stores in Waco now were not here,” Davis said. “Central Texas Marketplace was not around. There was nothing on Franklin Avenue but used-car dealerships. Valley Mills Drive was where all the teenagers gathered on Friday and Saturday nights, me included.”

The change is amazing, and Sears’ demise is disappointing, Davis said. He said he doubts Richland Mall will boast a Sears store when Black Friday 2019 arrives.

“There are just too many options out there. Sears couldn’t keep up and lost its niche,” he said. “The fact you can buy Craftsman tools at Lowe’s and Black & Decker now owns the brand is testament to that fact.”

A banner in Waco’s Sears store proclaims the chain was established in 1893, 125 years ago.

Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, said she believes Sears is beyond hope.

“Sears leadership has done everything it can to save a few locations, but it has seen decades of mismanagement, underinvestment in stores and undifferentiated product lines,” Hollinger said. “It’s sad. At one time Sears was the largest retailer in America, an icon of American families and American business. Its bankruptcy is the result of failure to innovate, very much so. There is an old joke that Sears management had an office on the 27th floor, but bad news didn’t travel past the 26th.”

This insularity and dependence on what worked last year “just doesn’t work in that consumer tastes have changed, and technology rapidly changes how we make purchases,” Hollinger said. “Sears is beyond any recognizable iconic form that families may have reminisced about at the Thanksgiving table.”

Waco Sears store manager Chris Frakes said he could not comment on its future. But crowds swamped the place on Black Friday, with demand high for apparel, tools and toys, Frakes said. Sears added a toy line this season in pursuit of shoppers who otherwise may have visited the now defunct Toys R Us.

Elsewhere in Richland Mall, JCPenney was buzzing late Friday afternoon, with sizable lines around checkout kiosks, the Sephora display and sections devoted to large and small appliances, apparel, jewelry and housewares.

A few years ago, JCPenney was facing challenges. Its stores and product lines had become stodgy, and sales floundered. It responded by tweaking store layout and rounding prices to simplify the shopping experience. It then enticed Sephora to become an in-store partner and added big-ticket items and toys to fill gaps left by struggling Sears and Toys R Us.

“We’re carrying more toys than ever. On top of that, we went after the baby business, stocking walkers, strollers and car seats,” store manager Steve Valdez said. “We got into toys last year, dabbled a little bit, but this year we’re offering a tremendous number. On Thursday, we offered 50 percent off on all toys, so we’re getting into competitive pricing against Target and Walmart.”

Liz Rodriguez, 22, from Laredo and visiting friends in Waco, smiled when asked what attracted her to JCPenney. “Specifically? Sephora,” she said, holding up a black sweater to admire. “But this looks super comfy.”

As for appliances, “we’re offering the top four major brands,” Samsung, Frigidaire, General Electric and LG Electronics, Valdez said.

Across town, Target also had the absence of Toys R Us on its mind.

“I just got a thousand cases of toys today, and we have five times as many people as usual assigned strictly to toys,” assistant manager Sharon Nelson said Wednesday, during preparations for sales Thursday and Friday. “We have toys scattered everywhere, looking for a place to put them. We do expect extra traffic due to Toys R Us closing.”

Dick’s Sporting Goods was celebrating its first Black Friday weekend in Richland Mall by offering 25 percent off on all merchandise. A team leader, speaking quickly between tasks late Friday afternoon, said sales of trampolines, bicycles and basketball goals had been brisk.

Valdez, at JCPenney, said he hopes Sears survives. But if it does fail, and its 150,000-square-foot home becomes vacant, he has a wish list.

“I would like to see a more interactive mall, virtual reality type attractions like those at the Killeen mall,” he said. “Anything that would drive more traffic to the mall, especially with Central Texas Marketplace doing so well.”

Hollinger, at Texas A&M, said malls must evolve to meet consumer demand and tastes. She said shopping has become an experience, and success belongs to innovative properties that offer the most attractive mix of dining, entertainment, unique products and amenities. Amenities might include living and office space, with the ultimate goal being fun, even whimsical.

Amazon and online shopping have their place, but there will always be demand for brick-and-mortar space, even among digital-first companies, Hollinger said. A sizable percentage of shoppers “still want to be able to touch and feel the product, no matter how sophisticated their shopping app,” she said. “They want to try on those glasses or that bra, if for nothing else to develop brand trust. I see the battle of titans in retail becoming even more fierce. For the consumer, it’s a great time, a time of better service, greater differentiated products and unique shopping experiences.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

A statue of Doris Miller looks over the hull-shaped memorial to the World War II hero under construction on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Crews are aiming to finish the $2.5 million memorial by Dec. 7, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller, a Waco native, was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the attack.

Waco ISD seeks teacher feedback on literacy proposal
 Lauren Dodd  / 

The Waco Independent School District is asking teachers to weigh in on a plan to make reading the center of the education experience.

At a school board workshop last week, Waco ISD administrators unveiled a literacy plan they have been developing for 18 months. If approved, the plan would fulfill one of five projects Waco ISD proposed as part of Transformation Waco’s charter application process with the Texas Education Agency.

“We’re fast and furious trying to increase education of our literacy plan throughout our school community,” Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson told the board. “This 157-page document was not done to just put on a shelf. I’d encourage you to read the whole plan.”

Based on Houston ISD’s “Literacy by 3” program, Waco ISD’s plan seeks to improve the reading skills of all students by encouraging teachers to incorporate reading and writing into every subject, add vocabulary into daily instruction, personalize student learning through various reading software programs and provide literacy interventions for struggling readers.

“In Waco ISD, ‘All means all.’ Therefore, through this comprehensive districtwide literacy plan, all learners have access to positive literacy experiences that will equip them for life, no matter their gifts, challenges, or special abilities and allow them to function as contributing members of 21st century society,” the report states.

In addition to boosting student literacy, the plan aspires to reduce student absences and dropout rates, improve teacher performance and increase parents’ reading skills.

If approved by the school board, the literacy initiative will roll out in two phases, starting with grades kindergarten through third as well as sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th grades the first year. The next year it would be extended to fourth, fifth, eighth, 11th and 12th grades.

Teachers are a critical part of the plan’s framework. Dozens of pages of the district’s plan are dedicated to classroom reading techniques, categorized by grade, special population and suggested time allocated to each technique.

The plan notes research showing teachers and administrators tend to doubt that poor students can excel. But it cites other studies demonstrating that teachers are the most significant influence on student achievement, and achievement levels improve when teachers hold students to high expectations.

If approved, all Waco ISD teachers will be expected to adhere to the literacy plan’s instruction requirements. Teachers will be monitored in accordance with the plan during classroom walk-throughs. The data collected during walk-throughs will contribute to teacher evaluations and signal when they need more training.

The Waco ISD plan was developed by 15 school district administrators and personnel, but Nelson said teacher feedback is needed before it is finalized.

“I’m wondering what the teachers would say are holes missing in this plan,” Nelson said. “What are the gaps? What are the things that really need to be revisited? I know I’m speaking for everyone who is an author in this, we welcome that feedback. We know we’re not done yet. Speak up.”

Nelson said he wants the public to know the goal of this literacy plan is not solely centered on increasing standardized test outcomes.

“We want kids to foster a love of reading,” he said. “I’m 45 years old and I love reading one book a month of my choice. I’ve been doing that since I was 11. So we want everyone to have that love of reading. It’s something that cannot always be punitive or tied to some kind of test.”

Still, Waco ISD secondary education director Scott McClanahan said the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has been part of the decline of classroom reading.

“There is an expectation of students to be reading,” he said. “However, … principals are held accountable for (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) scores and that’s going to trump reading, and that is the sad truth. You know if I have a choice to give my kids the time to read in class or work on STAAR, they are going to choose STAAR.”

Literacy is one of two main goals Waco ISD board members are watching closely.

In 2016, the Waco ISD Board of Trustees adopted a goal under TEA’s Lone Star Governance model which requires elementary schools to increase the number of third-grade students reading on grade level by 29 percentage points by 2020. By 2020, the board expects 75 percent of kindergartners and 80 percent of first- and second-graders to read on grade level.

But according to 2018 Waco ISD assessments, only 48 percent of kindergartners, 48 percent of first-graders, 50 percent of second-graders and 61 percent of third-graders are reading on grade level.

Government climate report warns of worsening US disasters

WASHINGTON — As California’s catastrophic wildfires recede and people rebuild after two hurricanes, a massive new federal report warns that these types of extreme weather disasters are worsening in the United States. The White House report quietly issued Friday also frequently contradicts President Donald Trump.

The National Climate Assessment was written long before the deadly fires in California this month and before Hurricanes Florence and Michael raked the East Coast and Florida. It says warming-charged extremes “have already become more frequent, intense, widespread or of long duration.” The report notes the last few years have smashed U.S. records for damaging weather, costing nearly $400 billion since 2015.

The recent Northern California wildfires can be attributed to climate change, but there was less of a connection to those in Southern California, said co-author William Hohenstein of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A warm, dry climate has increased the areas burned over the last 20 years,” he said at a press conference Friday.

The report is mandated by law every few years and is based on more than 1,000 previous research studies. It details how global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas is hurting each region of the United States and how it impacts different sectors of the economy, including energy and agriculture.

“Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the report says.

That includes worsening air pollution causing heart and lung problems, more diseases from insects, the potential for a jump in deaths during heat waves, and nastier allergies.

“Annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century — more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states,” the report says. It’ll be especially costly on the nation’s coasts because of rising seas and severe storm surges, which will lower property values. And in some areas, such as parts of Alaska and Louisiana, coastal flooding will likely force people to relocate.

“We are seeing the things we said would be happening, happen now in real life,” said another co-author Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. “As a climate scientist it is almost surreal.”

And Donald Wuebbles, a co-author from University of Illinois climate scientist, said, “We’re going to continue to see severe weather events get stronger and more intense.”

What makes the report different from others is that it focuses on the United States, then goes more local and granular.

“All climate change is local,” said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Richard Alley, who wasn’t part of the report but praised it.

While scientists talk of average global temperatures, people feel extremes more, he said.

“We live in our drought, our floods and our heat waves. That means we have to focus on us,” he said.

The Lower 48 states have warmed 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) since 1900 with 1.2 degrees in the last few decades, according to the report. By the end of the century, the U.S. will be 3 to 12 degrees (1.6 to 6.6 degrees Celsius) hotter depending on how much greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, the report warns.

Outside scientists and officials from 13 federal agencies wrote the report, which was released on the afternoon following Thanksgiving. It was originally scheduled for December. The report often clashes with the president’s past statements and tweets on the legitimacy of climate change science, how much of it is caused by humans, how cyclical it is and what’s causing increases in recent wildfires.

Trump tweeted this week about the cold weather hitting the East including: “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS — Whatever happened to Global Warming?”

Friday’s report seemed to anticipate such comments, saying: “Over shorter timescales and smaller geographic regions, the influence of natural variability can be larger than the influence of human activity ... Over climate timescales of multiple decades, however, global temperature continues to steadily increase.”

Releasing the report on Black Friday “is a transparent attempt by the Trump Administration to bury this report and continue the campaign of not only denying but suppressing the best of climate science,” said study co-author Andrew Light, an international policy expert at the World Resources Institute.

During a press conference Friday, officials behind the report repeatedly declined to answer questions about the timing of its release and why it contradicts public statements from Trump. Report director David Reidmiller said questions about the timing were “relevant,” but said what was in the report was more important.

Trump, administration officials and elected Republicans frequently say they can’t tell how much of climate change is caused by humans and how much is natural.

Citing numerous studies, the report says more than 90 percent of the current warming is caused by humans. Without greenhouse gases, natural forces — such as changes in energy from the sun — would be slightly cooling Earth.

“There are no credible alternative human or natural explanations supported by the observational evidence,” the report says.