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Not giving up on struggling schools: Q&A with Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, 1 year in

  • 11 min to read
Nelson

Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson says the Prosper Waco partnership holds promise for five struggling schools.

As Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson prepares for his second year with Waco Independent School District, his focus remains on building a community movement to save five schools from closure by the state.

And those schools, some of which only failed to meet state standards last year by mere points, are now part of a new partnership that has never been tried in Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with the Tribune-Herald, Nelson shared his thoughts about the in-district partnership with Prosper Waco, a local nonprofit, and how that partnership will create better academic student outcomes.

He also talked about his upcoming legislative priorities and his most recent trip to Austin, where he served as one of the first public school administrators in a roundtable discussion hosted by Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent more gun violence in schools.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview with Nelson has been edited for length and clarity.

Q    You were at Gov. Abbott’s round table on school safety. How did that go?

A     It was interesting. The governor made it real clear that even though there’s been a huge spike in school shootings, that this state is not going to desensitize it. And with the recent events in Santa Fe, we have every reason right now to be focused on having conversations, having community forums, looking at how many officers we have. What is our plan with the city and the county? If shots popped off at Waco High right now, I guarantee you that one of the biggest issues would be how many people showed up, ’cause it’d be a lot.

Q    Was there any conversation about the comment Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made about how having one single entrance for every student may have prevented the Santa Fe shooting that left 10 dead?

A    The lieutenant governor did bring up school design. And there was an architect there who then jumped in and said basically one of the things that the state is looking at is legislating certain instructional, facility design safety precautions in all buildings going forward. Doors. Exit doors. Dallas ISD really was a proponent for metal detectors. The architect people don’t like that.

If you’re corralling everyone to a metal detector and someone really wants to do something to a group of 1,000 kids — then you got yourself a problem because they’ve all been corralled right there.

Q    The state has already cut so much from just public school funding. Did Gov. Abbott mention possible additional funding to help these security measures?

A    I’m proud to tell you that that was one of my issues. I was like, ‘Say what you got to say. Do what you got to do.’ Accomplish your objective. But make sure that if there’s going to be any mandates, that they come along with the appropriate funding. I really tried to emphasize that the school funding structure is already out of whack with the state constitution. State constitution says public ed is supposed to be a right. But it’s not funded like that.

Q    Let’s switch gears to the recently approved in-district charter partnership between Waco ISD and Prosper Waco to create a transformation zone to save five improvement required campuses from closure. During certain discussions with the TEA, sometimes it seemed like certain priorities were more important to state officials, and certain priorities were more important to Waco ISD. What were the differences you encountered through this process?

A    Well, here’s my opinion: I think that an in-district charter is one of the most unique charters there is because an in-district charter implies that the charter network, that the zone of schools still has a very, very serious relationship with the district which they are separating from.

For a superintendent in the 21st century, looking at different types of models, I want to be clear that the TEA model that we have in an in-district partnership, we still feel accountable for those kids. We still feel responsible to serve those families in those communities that are in the transformation zone. Technically they get to operate with their own board of directors. They get to do some things that for our board of trustees and our staff, it requires us to change our paradigm a little bit.

Q    What do you think was the sticking point at during the discussions with the TEA to form this new partnership?

A    Well, I think that our partnership is so unique in the state of Texas. You know, we’ve already received calls from several school districts around the state saying, “Help me understand what Prosper Waco’s role is. How does it work with the school district?” And so for that reason, I think even TEA would have to admit, “Well, it meets the requirements of the statute. It definitely qualifies as acceptable under what we put out, the rules we put out.”

If that’s the case, I think TEA would say we keep our schools local. Everyone involved with this transition is really, um, they’re homeboys, so to speak.

It’s community leaders like Malcolm Duncan Jr. (a former mayor and Prosper Waco’s interim board president), and it’s Virginia DuPuy (another former mayor who serves as an advisor to Prosper Waco’s governing board), and it’s Tom Stanton (the Rapoport Foundation’s executive director and Prosper Waco treasurer), and Bill Clifton (a longtime business leader and Prosper Waco board president-elect).

I think TEA recognizes that. I know that’s one of the things I’m most proud of is that our community has been responsive. People like the NAACP have committed each Monday night to tutor kids. Different local organizations have decided to step up and teach kids how to read, and mentor kids. And I don’t know exactly the statistic, but our number of volunteers is one of the things that I think TEA is like, “Whoa, we got hundreds of people to come to the table because it’s local.”

And so when you create this movement of a community deciding to save its schools, it’s got to be people’s time. It’s got to be people’s talent and, and their treasure. And so we’re trying to really work on organizing all the nonprofits. That’s why the relationship with Prosper Waco is so unique and so special is that they already for three years been working on organizing all the local hospitals, all the local doctors and nurses, and all the local nonprofits.

Q    Are there other academically struggling schools or school districts that are considering similar models?

A    I know one school district in Texas, I don’t want to say their name, but they’re so impressed with our model that they want to consider doing this entire concept with their entire school district and a local nonprofit.

So that would be unprecedented as well, if you went to this whole modeling. I would have to say that if our model works, we’re going to look to expand it because I do agree the future of public education does involve different models to meet the needs of different kinds of kids.

I want to emphasize to the public that I’m not the enemy of thinking forward and the classroom looking different. And not necessarily the public school. Now I want to be clear, public schools are facing fierce competition.

Rapoport Academy, Harmony Science Academy, Waco Montessori schools, these are all outstanding models of how to educate kids. I’m not bad-mouthing them in any way. I’m just saying that public school districts are always going to be in the hunt to educate a group of kids that we know will show up at our doorstep regardless of the competition.

And those kids need to be able to compete.

Q    One of the things we’ve talked about over the last year is the different kinds of subsets of students in Waco ISD. And you spent several years trying to improve schools in Laredo ISD, where the subsets were not as many. Can you cite two or three things that really made a difference in turning Laredo ISD around that might also come into play here with our different subsets of students and children?

A    Well, you know, it’s this whole concept of not waiting for someone else to come save your schools.

In Laredo, there was a group of adults. Some of them were teachers. Some of them were school administrators. Some of them were pastors, priests and bishops.

I’m not Catholic, but in Laredo, the priest was a big deal. They were very involved in the leadership of the schools. They knew what was happening in terms of discipline. They knew what was happening in terms of reading levels. They were supporting kids with different ways. You know, 99 percent of our kids were poor. And so a lot of my kids came to school without backpacks, without supplies. It was the local Catholic churches that came together and made a decision that no kid would go without a backpack.

And that’s a similar situation here. You know, we have philanthropic groups. I’m thinking about the Rapoport Foundation, the Waco Foundation, the Cooper Foundation, the NAACP, LULAC, a host of faith-based organizations. They all have made a decision that this is, this is spiritual work for them. This is their way to serve those in need. And as a person who feels called to Waco, I understand their battle cry.

To answer your question specifically, one of the things that’s similar is community engagement.

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“I think if we can improve the quality of our teaching, that combined with wrap-around services, community engagement, some of these other things, something special can happen,” says Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson.

Q    You have mentioned a couple of times now publicly the idea of taking on the state when it comes to how House Bill 1842, the law that determines how long it can be on the state’s improvement required list before state intervention or closure. How real is that possibility of Waco ISD asking for a federal injunction against the state?

A    Well, the answer to your question is it’s very real. As the superintendent of the schools, I feel like one of my responsibilities is to be a strong advocate for our students.

And when I feel like things are being done to our students that are unjust, that deny their civil liberties, then, yes, I consider all of my options to defend our kids.

If legislation impacts two ZIP codes in my school district and it doesn’t impact anyone else, well, then we may have to talk about that at the Supreme Court if we have to. So it’s not a threat. It’s just clear that it’s very real. I’m not intending to be a martyr or, you know, Martin Luther King. But I do think that this is the civil rights issue of our day.

And I’m clear on my position on it. I think that all kids deserve access to a quality education. And you cannot abdicate all public schools to charter or private. It’s just not going to happen.

Q    Have you taken any steps toward taking legal action?

A    No.

Q    Can you explain the inequality of HB 1842 more directly?

A    I’m going to say this to you because this is one of my battle cries. OK, in Waco ISD, you’ve got four middle schools. Two of the middle schools are in danger of being closed by the state of Texas. Now, if we close them according to the statute, the kids don’t leave. No, they still over there in the neighborhood, asking, “Where do we go to school now for our free and appropriate education?”

So I’m telling you what I would have to do. And I want the people to know. I would have to set up portables at the back of Tennyson and Cesar Chavez. And I’d have to bus all the kids from Carver over to Tennyson and put them in portables. And if you do your history, you do your research, in the ’70s, this city went through this very same thing. It was ruled unconstitutional, and they had to break it all up.

We’re not going backward. And that’s the part of the statute that if for some reason schools were chronically low-performing and they were forced to close by TEA, then we’re going to have to have a talk about that legally because it creates separate and unequal schools. It puts a group of minority children in portables while allowing another group of blessed young children —I don’t want you to think I’m against them. I love our gifted ... Our Atlas Academy is one of my most proudest programs. It’s one of the programs that makes me most proud as a superintendent is the fact that we have Atlas Academy. But if you put their black and brown brothers and sisters out in portables, there’s something savagely unequal.

There’s something wrong with that. And I personally would not want to be part of a school system that creates those types of barriers for kids, particularly kids who are already economically disadvantaged and at risk of dropping out.

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Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson talks about his upcoming priorities for his second year with the district Wednesday at the Waco ISD Administration building.

Q    So when you look at the upcoming legislative session, what is your priority?

A    Well, for me personally, I’m an advocate of changing school finance reform. I believe that when you start looking at some of the property tax legislation that’s coming down and our particular situation in WISD, if we get more property tax, then we get less state funding. That’s absurd to me. It just doesn’t make sense. Our teachers and staff have worked so hard. And so I’m hoping that the Legislature will give us some type of funding to help us fund teacher raises and staff raises.

And I’m obviously, with yesterday at the round table, I’m looking at school safety and what we do to support our officers, and our law enforcement, and giving them more tools and weapons that they need to keep our schools safe and keep our cities safe, and more counselors that can identify mental health issues.

Q    What about at the local level? What is your priority or what are your priorities going into your second year here?

A    A lot of the work is just continuing what we’ve already started and trying to create a culture of high expectations and unprecedented accountability asking people to do their jobs at higher levels of service and higher levels of teamwork. Our mission is something that none of us can do it alone. One of the things I’m most proud of is how we’ve been able to reorganize in a way that has reduced our budget almost half a million dollars.

Goal No. 2, year two we’d like to reduce it another half a million dollars. And so that’s, if anyone in the system will tell you, that leaves a lot of people anxious about who’s being reduced and where are those positions going, and who’s picking up those responsibilities. We’ve already reduced our cabinet by 20 percent, and so that’s a huge step. Two six-figure salaries we cut.

And I think the public needs to know that we’re trying to be leaner and meaner and be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

Q    Some of the reorganization that’s happening involves bring in more wrap-around (social) services for students. Aren’t some of those services already available? And how do you see this playing a role in Waco ISD schools?

A    I think if we can improve the quality of our teaching, that combined with wrap-around services, community engagement, some of these other things, something special can happen.

If nothing else, now every kid may not pass the STAAR test, but we’re going to make a difference. We’re going to lower the mobility rate. We’re going to improve the literacy rate of our city.

We’re going to improve attendance in the whole school district. We’re going to reduce the dropout rate. We’re going to reduce the number of criminal activity from juvenile delinquents.

And so think about the impact of those things that are not measured on the STAAR test, but what it would do for the city of Waco. And I believe that Prosper Waco and WISD can address some of these societal ills, reducing the number of teenagers that are pregnant. See, now, that’s a wraparound service that no one wants to talk about. We have 1,500 kids that are homeless. We want that to go to zero.

Q    Last question: What would you say to those who look at this partnership, because Prosper Waco does have autonomy over these schools, as another way to pass the buck, so to speak?

A    There could be nothing further from the truth because still feel personally responsible for the success of those transformation zone schools. I won’t rest until Carver and Indian Spring make it.

Until J.H. Hines and Brook Avenue and Alta Vista are off the list, they’re mine. Now, when I talk to TEA, I’m being totally cooperative. Our team can tell you that I’m trying to protect the integrity of the process that is given. I really am.

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