As the school year winds down for Waco ISD, five of its schools are struggling to avoid falling below state standards for the fifth year in a row. When that happens at a school for five consecutive years, Texas can shut it down, or take the school over. And It’s not just a problem for Waco ISD. Dozens of districts in Texas have schools in the same position.
Waco ISD has been vigorously working to bring those schools up to state standards, and is developing a contingency plan in case they miss the mark.
Let’s start at GW Carver Middle School in east Waco. Science Teacher Cody Jones’s students are creating their own topographic maps – squishing and molding play dough into the hills and valleys those maps depict.
But don’t let the play dough fool you. Jones says this school year has been intense, with teachers and students committed to raising GW Carver’s test scores.
“I’ve never had a group of kids that I could push so hard and they didn’t break,” Jones say. “I was a coach for a long time 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.”
It’s a critical time for the school and the students, GW Carver is one of 5 schools in Waco the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, has deemed “Improvement Required” or IR for short, for the last four years.
The students know what’s at stake and are engaged and focused.
“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,” says Eva Benitez, an eighth grader.
That confidence aside, it’s a lot of pressure for GW Carver,.and Waco District Superintendent Dr. Marcus Nelson. He’s still in his first year on the job. But Nelson says, when you look at the district’s failing schools, and its most successful, the achievement gaps are stark.
“This school district had to force desegregation, there was a community not reading on grade level and another community trying to get to Baylor. I’m sure it was an issue and it still is today. It’s not right,” Nelson says.
The change, Nelson says, needs to start in the classroom. So he’s planning to increase incentives for teachers at Waco ISD next year.
“In the incentive plan we’ve proposed to TEA, the best and brightest teachers will have the opportunity to reach at some of our most needy schools and make somewhere in the area of $100,000 a year,” Nelson say.
He says he’s also worked to shift Waco ISD’s culture, trying to have every staff member recognize their individual, special skills, and think about how they can use them to help students grow.
Alta Vista Elementary is another one of Waco ISD’s at-risk schools. On a recent morning, fifth grade Teacher Jo Spark worked with a group of children who’ve failed their STAAR reading test.
Spark says she’s been showing up early are staying late.
“And every teacher up here does that,” Spark says. “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.”
Spark feels that she have done just about everything she can think to do to push Alta Vista out of the “improvement required” range. She even stayed behind when her husband moved to Beaumont.
“I wanted to see it,” she says. “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.”
But there isn’t much of that left. Test scores will be released in August. Any of the five schools that don’t meet state standards again could technically be taken over by the state, or closed.
Waco ISD does have a backup plan. Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law that lets districts partner with a nonprofit to help failing schools. Waco ISD has teamed up with Prosper Waco, a community development organization.
The TEA has just approved a plan that would let Prosper Waco run those schools. That would give the district an additional two years to bring those campuses up to standards. Prosper-Waco’s Matthew Polk says there are still a lot of details to work out.
“It would be nice to have a whole list of things for you to say it’s going to be this, this and this, but we’ve spent the last four months just navigating this developing evolving process of how this whole thing even works,” Polk says.
The group and Waco ISD now have summer break to assess what needs to be done next.
“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,” Polk says.
This is, of course, all contingent on whether any of the five at-risk Waco schools fail. For teachers, students, and Superintendent Nelson are still hoping their hard work will pay off.