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Waco ISD Looks to Transformational Committees to Help Improve Schools

Just a few weeks ago, students across Texas public schools were taking the STAAR test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. The standardized assessment not only measures student performance – but the performance of schools as a whole. When a student fails these tests, there are make-up exams or second chances. But what happens if a school fails to meet educational standards? 

Teachers, parents and school administrators from a North Waco neighborhood sit in the cafeteria of Brook Avenue Elementary School. Everyone’s been served enchiladas, beans, rice, chips, salsa and desert. But they’re not here for the food. They’re here to discuss the school’s future.

The future of Brook Avenue Elementary, which over the last three years has had an average of 99.2 percent economically disadvantaged students, remains uncertain. The school’s ratings have waned over the last years as a result of low STAAR results.

"You know, the school can't do it alone. The community can't do it alone. We have to work together, and it really does take a village in order to be successful."

 A campus’ accountability ratings are determined through an algorithm based on the amount of students who passed the STAAR exam.

Officials remain hopeful that they can improve school standards.

During the last Texas legislative session, Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1842 into law. This bill says that any school that does not meet educational standards for five years in a row can be closed down. On top of that, if that happens, then the Texas Commissioner of Education can replace the entire school board and board of trustees. Two schools, J.H. Hines and Brook Avenue Elementary, have already failed to meet standards for four years now.

However, schools actually do have some time before the bill goes into effect, says Pat Atkins, president of the Waco Independent School District.

"Although the statute says, ‘The Commissioner shall close any school after five years,’ the compromise they’ve worked out with [The Texas Education Agency] is that none of this takes effect until the fall of 2018", says Atkins. 

"So we’re sitting here in the Spring of 2016, and we’ve got about two and a half years to really make a compelling case that these schools don’t need to change, that it would have catastrophic effects on these neighborhoods."

But Waco ISD isn’t waiting until 2018 to raise schools’ academic performance. 

Credit Jill Ament

 One step the district has taken is to form community transformational committees. At these committee meetings, parents, teachers, and other community members provide input on school development strategies. Because the district recognized that that different schools face different obstacles, they formed three committees, pairing schools that operate within similar communities and that are struggling to meet academic standards.

The turn out, school administrators say, has been good, and most are optimistic that these meetings in conjunction with other measures will allow their schools to improve educational outcomes. Sarah Pedrotti, principle at Brook Avenue Elementary, explains that transformational committees have a big role to play:

"I really believe that these transformation committees are important, and they really are transforming the way the community communicates with the schools, and I think that’s important", Pedrotti says. "It gives us the opportunity to sit down and talk, open up those conversations and really get the input that we need in order to be successful.

During the meetings this spring for Brook Avenue Elementary and their partner, Indian Spring Middle School, stakeholders in these schools have worked to understand the school’s histories, identify the root of problems the schools face, and come up with concrete solutions for ways to improve. Of all the things that have come out of these meetings, Pedrotti says that one thing in particular stands out:

"One thing that our transformation community really resonated with was that it takes a village and that was the theme that expanded that expanded that first meeting. You know, the school can’t do it alone. The community can’t do it alone. We have to work together, and it really does take a village in order to be successful", Pedrotti says. 

Brook Avenue Elementary, Indian Spring and other schools working toward meeting academic standards met regularly, according to their needs and schedules, during the spring. They will resume these meetings in the fall.

Avery was an intern with KWBU from 2015-2016. She graduated from Baylor University, where she studied philosophy and creative writing. She will intern with Here & Now at NPR in Washington D.C during the Summer of 2016.