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Atkins

Two top Waco ISD officials said the board of trustees left a state-mandated training session with a new appreciation for the district’s relationship with the Texas Education Agency.

“Despite some miscommunication on the front end or folks entering the room Saturday morning with a sense of resentment, frustration and anger, it turned out to be a powerful training,” Waco ISD board president Pat Atkins said. “Deputy commissioner (A.J.) Crabill clearly presented a continuous improvement framework for governance actions focused solely on student outcomes.”

All board members attended the training from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday despite a few being previously outspoken against the idea. The sessions focused primarily on the importance of hiring people during certain times of the year to get stronger candidates, board members understanding others’ expectations and on encouraging each other to show integrity, Atkins and Superintendent Bonny Cain said.

The ordered training is directly related to statements Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath made in August about cutting the number of failing Texas schools in half by using more and stronger interventions for districts with failing schools, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said in October.

“I think the bigger takeaway just in terms of relationships between this district and the Texas Education Agency, everybody left that training and for the first time in several years, felt like the TEA is truly on our side in addressing these challenges,” Atkins said. “The TEA truly wants to be our partner and help us implement these strategies to get better student outcomes. At times that has been perceived, whether intentionally or not, as an adversarial relationship.”

Cain said Crabill started by talking about integrity.

“Everybody thinks they know what integrity is, so the question was when have you acted without integrity? It’s hard to raise your hand and say,” Cain said.

That discussion was part of the process of getting board members to be more introspective and take personal ownership of the student outcomes in their community, Atkins said. It’s easy to say the district needs more parent involvement or community support, but Crabill said school board members overall have to push away from the blame game, Atkins said.

If trustees had decided not to agree to the training and the turnaround plans were denied, the state would have had the option to implement alternative management of the campuses, close them or go as far as appointing a board of managers to take over the district, according to a letter the TEA sent to inform the district it was not immediately approving the turnaround plans.

In the letter, received by the district Oct. 10, the TEA’s deputy commissioner of governance wrote he could not approve the proposed turnaround plans for Brook Avenue Elementary School, Alta Vista Elementary School and G.W. Carver Middle School. The deputy commissioner said he could reconsider the plans after the board went through the training. The campuses have had failing academic performance ratings for multiple years, and district officials were required to develop turnaround plans in 2015 to be implemented during the 2016-17 school year, according to the letter.

While the training didn’t specifically address where turnaround plans fell short, the deputy commissioner put Waco ISD staff in touch with TEA officials who could help identify those areas. The district is sorting through that, Cain said.

In the meantime, the board walked away with homework to identify one to five specific, measurable goals for the entire district to focus on in the next three to five years, along with several measurable progress checkpoints, Atkins said.

“The process he described is very similar to the process I and others went through in setting up Prosper Waco,” Atkins said. “It was the idea of you need these overarching goals. You need these very specific metrics to evaluate the progress toward those goals, and then you turn it over to the administration or collective impact model in the community to help us reach those goals.”

Prosper Waco is a collective impact initiative that works closely with community leaders and nonprofits to bridge gaps in financial security, education and health care issues in the city.

The board also may re-evaluate its strategic plan and work with a facilitator from the Region 12 Education Service Center to help identify those goals and narrow the goals down from the 14 already in the strategic plan, Atkins said. The board also may adjust how it handles public meetings, by posting part of the agenda a week in advance and restructuring how board meetings unfold to put more emphasis on those identified goals, they said.

It plans to offer a chance for public input on its long-term goals.

“Crabill asked us all to use a word at the end to describe the training, and the words that came up were ‘hopeful, exciting,’ ” Cain said. “Every one of them were positive, forward-looking words.”

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