Waco ISD Is Working Hard To Save Its Failing Schools

May 16, 2018

As the school year winds down for Waco ISD, 5 schools are at risk of failure for the 5th year in a row. The district has worked hard to bring the schools up to state standards and still have bigger changes planned. Will Burney looks at those changes and what will happen if the state thinks that more improvement is needed for these WISD Schools.

At Alta Vista Elementary, 5th grade Teacher Jo Spark is working with a group of children who’ve failed their Reading StAAR Test. It's a critical time for the school and the students. Alta Vista Elementary is one of 5 schools in Waco that the TEA has deemed “Improvement Required” or IR for short. It’s up to teachers like Spark and others to bring the kids up to speed.

According to Spark the teachers have given it all they’ve got. They are staying late and showing up early “and every teacher up here does that. Our lower grade teachers have stepped in and tutored and worked with kids in subject areas that they don’t teach and they’ve gone home and studied and found the best way to reach those kids” said Spark. Spark feels that they have done just about everything she can think to do. She even stayed behind when her husband moved to Beaumont. Spark Said“I wanted to see it. I wanted to see it happen, for us to get out of IR. Because I think we have all the tools I think it’s just going to take a little time”

Over at G.W. Carver Middle School in east Waco, Science Teacher Cody Jones is working with students on Topographic maps. Students are using playdough to represent the hills and valleys that the map depicts. But don’t let the play dough fool you. Jones has been working hard with the students all year. “I’ve never had a group of kids that I could push so hard and they didn’t break. I was a coach for a long and I’ve pushed these kids harder than I’ve pushed a wrestling team, harder than a football team and they just keep coming back.” said Jones. Even the students have seen a difference. 8th grader Eva Benitez is confident. “We’ve been hitting it hard so we can be a good school. It’s tough, it’s a tough time but we’re gonna get there.” Benitez said.

According to the district's superintendent, Dr.  Marcus Nelson, achievement gaps are the biggest issue causing schools to fail in Waco ISD and they’ve made a lot of changes to try to close that gap. Even Dr. Nelson is a change for the district. He still hasn’t completed his first year on the job. But that hasn’t stopped him from making changes of his own with even bigger changes planned for next year. Like incentivizing Teachers at Waco ISD. They’ve been doing this for a while but Nelson’s plan is BIGGER “What I’m talking about is something that’s never been done. In the incentive plan we’ve proposed to TEA, the best and brightest teachers will have the opportunity to Teach at some of our most needy schools and make somewhere in the area of 100,000 dollars a year.” Nelson said.

But as this year draws to a close, if these schools don’t meet standards again then technically the state would have to take control of the district or the schools would be shut down. That would happen if even a single school fails but a new law, SB 1882, gives schools a different option. They can opt to work with a charter school or non-profit to operate those schools. That would give them 2 more years to pass state standards.

That’s where Prosper-Waco comes in. If TEA approves then next year the non-profit will be the operator of those schools. However, Prosper Waco is an organization that connects other non-profits to solve community problems. It’s not designed to operate charter schools. A whole new non-profit may need to be created just to operate the schools. It’s a tall order for the partnership to succeed within two years but the other option would be to simply shut down those schools or allow the state to control the entire district.

If you’re wondering about what the changes under the partnership would look like, that’s all part of the details that still need to be worked out as well. According to Executive Director of Prosper Waco, Matthew Polk the road to getting the approval is long and complex in its own right “It would be nice to have whole a list of things for you to say it’s going to be this this and this but we’ve spent the last 4 months just navigating this developing evolving process of how this whole thing even works with TEA writing rules as we’ve gone about what the operating partner can do, has to do and so forth and ultimately this partnership isn’t even approved by the TEA yet” Polk Said. If the partnership is approved, Prosper Waco and the district will have to assess what needs to be done in the very short time they have during the summer. “Nobody involved here in Waco thinks this is the ideal process but it is what it is and so it’s going to be a very intensive two or three months to get some things in place for August” said Polk

It's important to remember that this is all contingent on if the schools fail. There is still the chance that the schools could meet the requirements and at that point the district will reevaluate the partnership.