When the Waco Independent School District hired Dr. A. Marcus Nelson as its new superintendent last year, Waco ISD board president Pat Atkins said, “In my mind we set out to find the best candidate for a new superintendent in the state of Texas, and we got him.” Atkins wasn’t just spouting hyperbole. The Texas Association of School Boards named Nelson its Superintendent of the Year in 2014, when he was at the helm of Laredo ISD. The award honors superintendents “for their strong leadership skills, dedication to improving the quality of education in their districts, and commitment to public support and involvement in education,” according to the TASB website. Nelson was also given the top superintendent honors in 2015 by the Texas Computer Education Association for his contribution to instructional technology.
Nelson led Laredo schools for eight years and has worked at every level of public education, including four years as a classroom teacher while also attending graduate school full time. He has a bachelor’s degree from Abilene Christian University, two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Texas A&M University-Commerce.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Nelson sat down with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley for a talk about education, obviously, but also music, books, ministry and how a kid from the inner city ended up at a conservative Churches of Christ college in West Texas. Kyle DeBeer, Waco ISD’s executive director of communications, who Nelson references several times during the 52-minute conversation, sat in on the interview as well.
WACOAN: So how do you like Waco?
Nelson: I absolutely love this city. I believe it’s such a strong, vibrant city that’s full of diversity. And I’m coming from a city that is predominantly Latino.
Nelson: God bless that city. It had a lot of wonderful parts of it, and I really enjoyed learning about the Latino culture. But there’s no place like Waco.
Everywhere you go, there’s just this appreciation for diversity. Not only in terms of racial and ethnic background, but I’ve been in some meetings with the president of Baylor, and I’ve been in some homes in East Waco eating menudo. It’s just a wonderful mix and blend of cultures and socio-economic status.
Black cowboys. You don’t see a whole lot of that in Laredo or San Antonio. But here, you go over to Elm [Avenue], and there’s some African-American gentleman riding down the street on a horse. And that’s just what they do on Saturdays.
I just really have enjoyed being in this part of the state and Baylor. Dr. [Linda] Livingstone and Dr. [Johnette] McKown and Mayor [Kyle] Deaver and Judge [Scott] Felton — they all have been so welcoming. I really feel like I’m a part of the leadership team that is leading this city forward.
WACOAN: When you said “Latino,” you said it like a Spanish-speaker. You had a little twist on it.
Nelson: Sí, estoy aprendiendo Español. [Yes, I am learning Spanish.]
WACOAN: I’ve got no idea what you said, but did you know Spanish before you got to Laredo?
Nelson: I did not. I had been in San Antonio serving as an assistant superintendent. But in Laredo, Texas, if you want to learn, if you got to go to the bathroom, you got to be able to say, ‘El baño, por favor.’ [The bathroom, please.]
There’s lots of people that don’t speak English [in Laredo]. Eight years there, I feel like I became pretty literate in being able to particularly read Spanish but even speak it as well.
WACOAN: Are you self-taught or did you take classes?
Nelson: I want to say I learned from the people that I worked with closely: the communications director in Laredo and my secretary and my custodian. In between those three, it was [practicing] every day. They went slow at first, but by the time I left we were having full conversations in Spanish.
WACOAN: So you’re pretty fluent, it sounds like.
Nelson: Yeah. I speak it more than any other African-American male that you know.
WACOAN: I heard a story that you were standing in a grocery store line and there was an African-American lady in front of you and a Hispanic lady behind you. You talked to the African-American lady, and then you turned around and talked to the Hispanic lady —
Nelson: In Spanish, yeah.
WACOAN: And the African-American lady wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.
Nelson: I mean, I recall the switch. That’s real important to me. I like to think very respectfully I can walk into the country club at Ridgewood, I can walk into Baylor University, and I can be very comfortable and present myself in a way that’s obviously educated, articulate and able to assimilate in that crowd, so to speak.
But I also can go over here to the hood, to the barrio, and just, you know, roll up to the YMCA, get on the basketball court and shoot some hoops with some brothers. And they just feel like it’s very natural and very comfortable. I think that’s one of the things about me that’s so unique is that I’m from inner-city San Antonio, born and raised. I went to Abilene Christian University, which is as conservative and as Anglo as you can get. And my professional experiences have taken me from Dallas to the border.
So now coming to Waco, I feel like I could talk with any member of our community and feel a level of connection that makes them more comfortable and that it’s a part of my life experiences.
WACOAN: At least last year, looking at Waco ISD’s demographics, it was 60 percent Hispanic —
Nelson: Yes, sir.
WACOAN: And then 28.5 percent African-American. You, with your attributes, everything that you are, it sounds like you can relate well with most of the population of Waco ISD.
Nelson: I think that’s real important, Mr. Tankersley, that not all of our kids are learning English as a second language. Not all of our kids are African-American kids growing up in East Waco. We’ve got kids who want to go to Ivy League schools. And I want to be able to connect with every kid I’ve got, regardless of their race, regardless of their background. I want all 15,000 kids to know who their superintendent is, to know that he cares for them and to know that he [is accessible] to them and their families.
That’s what makes my presentation a little overwhelming to some people because I’m coming with a full train moving and full throttle. I think that’s what kids deserve, and I think schools today face so much negativity and criticism that you’ve got to have this message of hope, this message that no we’re going to do this.
I don’t care what [Texas Education Agency] said, I don’t care what the Waco Tribune-Herald said. I don’t care what people think about inner-city Waco. These kids can do this. And you’ve got to have leadership that really believes that and pushes that, pulls that out of kids.
WACOAN: When you were a teacher in school, what did you teach?
Nelson: I started my career in the Garland Independent School District, suburb of Dallas, and I was an elementary fifth grade teacher right out of college. I did that for two years. Then I went to North Garland High School, right down the road, and I taught algebra I. I did that for two years.
So I only taught for a total of four years — two years elementary fifth grade and two years algebra I at North Garland High School. In those four years, I was going to graduate school full time. I was taking 12 hours a semester.
At the end of four years, I had a master’s degree in educational administration, another master’s degree in secondary education and a doctoral degree in educational administration, and I hadn’t been teaching five years yet. And that was my plan. When I walked into teaching, I knew that I wanted to be a superintendent.
They told me in college, ‘Well, slow down. Before you become a superintendent, you might want to go teach first.’ So I did what I needed to do, but I’ve been on the fast track to school district leadership since I was 23 basically, right out of college. Here I am. This is my 10th year as a superintendent.
I worked at an elementary school as a teacher; I worked at a high school as a math teacher. My first assistant principal job was at a middle school, sixth through eighth grade. So as I come into Waco, I look at our schools and I say, ‘I’ve got experience at elementary, middle and high [schools], and central office.’
WACOAN: So how are things going at Waco ISD?
Nelson: I’m real thankful to have attracted some of the best and brightest talent in our state. We’ve added some members of our team, particularly the district-level leadership team, like Mr. DeBeer.
We have an assistant superintendent of operations [Israel Carrera], who was serving as an assistant of operations in Del Rio, so he’s got a lot of experience. Our chief technology officer [Darvis Griffin] has a master’s degree in networking and all kinds of specialized technology, Texas A&M grad. I think he’s going to do some great things for our district.
Having said that, the talent that has been brought in is really coupled with some veterans that are born and raised in Waco, Texas, and together, we put together a pretty dynamic team that I think is able to move district improvement quicker. I really feel like we can address some of the chronic, low-performing performance issues in a way that will be unprecedented, and ultimately, I believe that our inner-city schools will be one of the best and brightest parts of our city in the next couple of years.
WACOAN: You talked last month about possibly repurposing some campuses. Is that still on the books? Is that still a possibility? Where are you there?
Nelson: Yes, sir. You know, we went to the community last month and basically tried to explain some of the recent legislation and how it’s kind of backed Waco ISD into a corner, and we either need to repurpose some schools or we need to close them or the Texas Education Agency is going to get even more aggressive.
I believe that we are committed to coming up with a plan that makes sure we do not close any schools. And that’s my commitment. So to answer your question, yeah, if we have to repurpose some [or] we have to identify a [school community partnership team] — that’s one of TEA’s options — well then so be it. Because closing the schools or abdicating schools to charter networks, that’s not going to happen on my watch.
WACOAN: Everything I’ve read is the school board at Waco ISD is a really strong board. How is the relationship working with them?
Nelson: Well I believe that the board of trustees is one of the best parts of this school district. These seven men and women have been the highest level of professional. They take their role as an elected official very seriously. They have served in a way that is honorable and enthusiastic, and I am thankful to be on their team of eight.
They’ve already been recognized by Region 12 as the top board in this 75-school-district region. I happen to know for a fact that the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Association of School Boards all see the Waco Independent School District board of trustees as a model for what other urban school district board of trustees should operate like. They’re very serious, and they’re very passionate. And they debate, but they’re also very much a team, and they understand that where we’re performing today is unacceptable.
And I believe they’ve brought me in to really assemble a team that makes sure that we have schools that match the expectations of our community. And so I applaud the board. I don’t have a negative thing to say about them. I’ve worked with some crazy boards, and this is not one of them.
WACOAN: The expectations of the community. What are those expectations?
Nelson: Well, I really feel like our community is disappointed in the fact that we have schools in our city that are unwilling or unable to meet minimum state standards. They don’t even have these discussions in Midway, Mr. Tankersley. They don’t even discuss low-performing schools in Belton ISD. If [a school is rated] improvement-required in some of these suburban districts, they have one year to fix it or the superintendent will clean the whole school out, and that’s the way the standards have to be.
I know school districts that don’t have any improvement-required schools, and all of the kids in their school are poor, and none of them are low-performing. Here, 85 percent of our kids are poor, and five of our schools are threatening to be closed. I believe in our community that’s unacceptable.
I believe that the schools that we want to create for kids in Midway, the schools that we want to create for kids in Robinson and Connally are the same schools that we want to create for the kids in inner-city Waco. And there is no changing of the standard.
As a matter of fact, the fact that our kids may come from poverty or they may have home atmosphere challenges, that’s not an excuse. It can’t be. And I personally am from poverty and a single-parent home, and so that’s why I’m even more like no. Our community is expecting those kids, any poor kid in inner-city Waco, can go to Baylor if they want to go.
You can ask Dr. Livingstone. You can ask Dr. McKown at MCC. Or you can ask Nelson over at WISD. That’s the way our pipeline has to work. We need to create a pipeline. I’m saying I’m choosing to create a pipeline to college, TSTC or Baylor period.
WACOAN: You also said back in November, there’s a change coming to Waco ISD to improve the organization. Were you referring to the campuses to be repurposed or was that a bigger picture, or something else altogether?
Nelson: You know, I really think that’s the vision of the district is that we — I think all of us that are employees here — recognize that there’s a need to improve. This is not a situation where we’re walking in where they’ve already been recognized at the national and state level for student performance. That’s not where we’re at.
We’re at a place where, a year from now, I’m telling you it’s going to be the talk of the city, how those inner-city schools have risen to the next level. And year two is going to be even stronger. And year three.
In Laredo when I got there, they had six superintendents in seven years, and they had nine low-performing campuses, IR [improvement-required] campuses. And by the time I left, I had been there for eight years, and we had zero IR campuses. That’s the same thing I want to say is going to happen here. We’re not going to have any. We’re not going to have any, period.
That’s just the way it is. That’s what I would want for my own children. So that’s what I want for the kids that I work with.
WACOAN: Going from nine low-performing campuses to zero in Laredo, how did you do that?
Nelson: The first thing you have to do is you have to change the culture. In my opinion, when you have people who have been low-performing year after year, the adults almost sometimes show up to school and they’re like, ‘Hey I’m going to pitch it, if the kids hit it, they hit it. If they don’t hit it, I’m riding back out to Midway at the end of the day and going home to my family.’
Well that ain’t the way we feel here. If you pitch it and the kid doesn’t hit it, well then you didn’t pitch it right. Yeah, you need to repitch. Yeah, you need to work on your throwing. You see, we’ve got to look internally on how we solve our student challenges. And so I’m real strong about that.
I have high expectations. I’m not the most popular guy in Waco ISD today because I mean what I say and I’m inspecting the things that I’m expecting. So I go myself to campuses, and I talk to kids, and I look at their journals, and I read what they say, and I have conversations. I sit in what’s called teacher PLCs [professional learning communities], and I listen to them.
I’m not going to just sit on the 10th floor of a building and assume that this transformation that we’re trying to create is happening. No, I’ve got boots on the ground. I’m the type of general that leads from the front. And I’m working with kids and mentoring kids.
I go to work over at the YMCA on the east side, and I’m out there on the basketball court, working with kids like I want my teachers to do. And I really feel strongly that the answer to our problems is to build relationships with these kids so that they have a hero.
They want to wake up in the morning and come to school because they know Dr. Nelson’s looking for them. They know, you’re not there by 8 [knocks loudly on the table], Nelson might show up on a home visit. Yeah. The principal might even show up. These are the type of culture shifts.
You asked what we did in Laredo. We tried to change the culture, tried to get people excited about learning. We really tried to force our kids to respond to our expectations. So you make every kid write in a journal every day. Well what are you going to write? You’re going to take notes in class. Exactly what the teacher said, you’re going to write it down. And you force that, and you check the journals.
You make the teachers put the objective on the board so that a sixth grader — now I’m challenging the parent. You ask your kid, ‘What did you learn today, son?’ They can’t say, ‘I don’t know.’ Now the objective is on the board, the teacher made you write it in your journal. Now take that home and study that.
We really try to develop academic vocabulary. You’ve got a lot of problems, particularly with poor kids. In Laredo, the kids didn’t speak English. Here, they’re not speaking proper academic English. They’re speaking this ghetto Ebonics that is probably culturally appropriate, but on a well-written paragraph — ‘you know what I’m saying,’ ‘throwing shade’ — that don’t work. You’ve got to teach them how to write a well-written paragraph with an anticipatory set with three sentences that support your main idea. You’ve got to teach that. These are some of the things that, if you work at them long enough, in two to three years, you start to see the fruits of your labor.
The other thing that we had to do in Laredo to address our academic concerns is we brought in every 3-year-old to school. Day cares in Laredo hated it. But I was offering free pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds. Parents loved it. But think about what happened. By the time I had a kid at 3, they’re barely potty-trained. I mean, I had some accidents in August and in September with kids who are still trying to figure out the diaper thing.
But by the time I get that [kid] at 4, Mr. Tankersley, now they’ve been coming to school, and when they walk into kindergarten, I’m ready to change their lives because I had them for two years.
In most places, places like Central Texas, first time the public schools see the kids is in kindergarten. Rest of the time, [they’re] in day care, sitting at home. No, you can’t do that with poor kids. You’ve got to work on them earlier. You’ve got to get [them to learn] their letters and numbers and all that.
Mr. DeBeer and his lovely wife, Dr. DeBeer, their 2-year-old’s already being forced to learn something. That’s because of the parents. Not everybody has that home atmosphere. So that’s why an emphasis on early childhood education is one of the answers to your question.
And we’re going to be doing that here. We’re starting in the fall. We’re going to start as a pilot in one campus, but our plan is to expand it to the whole district. We’re going to do it at Brook Avenue [Elementary].
WACOAN: So day cares are not going to be happy. But like you said, you’re not necessarily the most popular guy in town right now.
Nelson: Didn’t come here to win a popularity contest. I came here to take the district where it’s at and make sure that when it’s finished, it is a school district that exceeds community standards.
WACOAN: What are PLCs?
Nelson: That stands for professional learning communities. What that basically is, is every day teachers are expected to teach their classes, but for one hour each day, they get what’s called a conference period. Now, most of the conference period, they’re free to do whatever they want to do. But one day a week during their conference, they’ve got to come to PLC.
In PLC, Tankersley’s a teacher, DeBeer’s a teacher, Nelson’s a teacher. I’ll start. ‘All right, I’ve got Josie Rodriguez. She failed her first six-weeks grades. She passed the periodic assessment. I talked to her parents. I’m going to be tutoring her. She’s coming on Saturdays.’ You do that with every kid you’ve got. And if me and you [are] teaching the kids together, then you know what her reading situation is. Then you tell me what her math situation is because you’re teaching math. Then P.E. and social studies.
It’s having conversations about student achievement. So those are a big thing to me. To fix schools, you’ve got to get the adults to change their behavior. But student behavior and student outcomes will never change until you change adult behavior.
WACOAN: You mentioned boots on the ground. At a previous district, you made 72 home visits in two or three days.
Nelson: Drop out and truancy reduction.
WACOAN: What inspired that?
Nelson: Like I said, if I say to the communications department, ‘I want you to go out to the homes, and I want you to knock on the doors and let them know that we’re starting school.’ Well if I tell them to go do a hundred homes, give me 10. Then I’m going to do 10. Now you go do 10. So I like to lead from the front.
Home visits are a good way for me to get acclimated to my community. So I haven’t done 72 in Waco, but I’ve done some home visits here. And it’s so powerful because you can kind of see where the kids are living. You can see what the situation is. You can see what the everyday is like.
We had a situation here in Waco in the first semester — you have to live two miles away from your [school] in order to get bus transportation. Well we had a situation here where it’s a little neighborhood that is 1.9 miles away from the school. And on days like today [cold and windy], 1.9 miles for a family that doesn’t have transportation and they’re not eligible for the bus, you make a hardship for them to come to school.
So I go out, look at the situation, and I put those kids on a bus. It’s real simple. It’s not rocket science or anything. We may not get reimbursed. That’s why they’re making those decisions, but it’s the right thing to do. And the only way you do is getting out there and seeing, ‘Oh, they can’t walk these 1.9 miles in the summer, and they can’t do it in the winter.’ So have that bus right over here pick them up on their way and vamonos. [Let’s go!]
WACOAN: What were the reactions like when you showed up at the door? Because you’re the superintendent, and you kind of fill a door frame. You’re just —
WACOAN: Intimidating. Yeah, you can be an intimidating presence. What was the reaction?
Nelson: Well by now I think most people, as intimidating as I am, I think you have to never watch TV and never read the newspaper to not know who I am. And so also I have a presence about me.
But I think that people that work with me would say, ‘No, he’s not what he looks like.’ I’m very approachable. I’m a good guy, I want to say. I give the good guy vibe. I’m not trying to, what my culture calls, run game on people. I don’t try to act like I’m an Ivy Leaguer when I’m in the hood. Likewise, when I go to Ivy League, I ain’t wearing no bandana. You know what I mean? I know when to put on a tie. So I think I’m relatable.
The other thing I would say to answer your question is I pretty much give people what they give me. So if you come at me nice and friendly and humble and kind, that’s what you’re going to get. I come knock on your door, and you start saying, ‘What? Go away.’ Then I’m going to knock louder. Yeah, there’s no fear here.
People talk about some of the media exposure I received on doing home visits. What you don’t know is that when I did those 72 in those two days, we did over a thousand [total]. I just did my part. I just did my few houses, my blocks. And then over here on these three blocks was a principal. And over here was the coach. And over here, and so on. I’m just trying to model what I expect.
I expect full effort from my people. I’m like one of these college coaches that you see. I feel like I’m coaching to win a national championship. And in Waco, we’re being compared to Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio. And we’re really smaller than them, but I bet you we compete academically. We have some of the best programs in the state.
Before I came to Waco, I already knew about GWAMA [Waco ISD’s Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy]. It was already all over the state that kids from all over the region were able to come to this specialized high school and learn basically vocational training, learn a trade.
And for the record, I’m taking that to a whole other level. I met with the provost at TSTC, and every kid at GWAMA is going to graduate from TSTC by the time I’m finished.
WACOAN: How important is sending a lot of kids to technical school instead of a four-year college?
Nelson: My attitude on that is I believe that every kid should have postsecondary education as an option for them, in my opinion.
Now you really start dissecting that problem, trying to get every kid to college, you really start peeling back that onion, so to speak, you’re going to find that a lot of kids have no interest in going to Baylor. They’re not even thinking about the University of Texas at Austin. Maybe your kids, maybe Kyle’s kids. But no, I’ve got another kid, he’s an old cowboy, and what he wants to do is he wants to make $80,000 a year welding. Let’s do it.
WACOAN: He can do that.
Nelson: Yeah, he can do that. Plumbing, working on construction. There’s got to be multiple career paths for people who are not wanting to go get a bachelor’s degree. Because a lot of those wonderful little boys and girls, they want to work. They just don’t want to go to college. They want to stay near home. A lot of them already have children. So I think even they should be encouraged to be on a college-bound track, but when they say they’d rather do welding or plumbing, all the programs that we offer at GWAMA, then we need to be able to facilitate that.
WACOAN: That’s one thing that I like about Waco. It’s got TSTC. It’s got Baylor. And it’s got MCC, which is now offering four-year degrees through —
Nelson: Tarleton and Texas Tech.
WACOAN: And so the educational opportunities are here for everybody in Waco, whether you’re looking for technical or junior college, state school, private school.
Nelson: I’ll tell you, Mr. Tankersley, I’m sure you already know this — that’s rare.
WACOAN: It is.
Nelson: I mean, you could sit right in your house, and you can go to community college, technical college, prestigious private college, and it’s all right here in Waco, Texas. I think that’s good.
WACOAN: Waco’s enjoying a surge in exposure right now, thanks to Magnolia. What would you say to a family moving into Waco to get them to consider Waco ISD instead of somewhere else?
Nelson: Well, first of all, I think that Waco ISD, with all due respect to the other outstanding school districts in this area, Waco ISD is the heartbeat.
You mentioned Magnolia. They’re right by my office. You mentioned Baylor, maybe two miles [away]. Waco is Any City, USA. This is where city government happens, county government, media.
So I would say to a family moving in that if you really want to be where the magic is happening, you really want to be where the action is. Downtown is being revitalized, and there’s places to live, eat, play, work, all within 10 square miles. And I know I want to be a part of that.
I would encourage anyone that moved to this area that if you’re looking for the quiet life, then you need to go out to Robinson or Lorena or something. But if you’re really looking to be in the part of a progressive, growing city, and you want to be a part of the leadership, you want your kids to have an array of educational choices.
That’s the other thing. As proud as I am of WISD, I’m really a proponent of school choice. I want that in there. I want people to know. I have no problem if Mr. DeBeer and his wife make a decision that because of their faith — this is just an example, I don’t even know Mr. DeBeer’s faith — let’s say they make a decision that they want to put their child in a Catholic school because of their faith. I think they should have the choice to do that. If they make a decision that they’re trying to push their child to go to an Ivy League school, well then Vanguard [College Preparatory School] is a good place for them.
But for the record, Mr. Tankersley, they can take the taxes that they already have to pay, and they can send their kids to Waco ISD, and I’m guaranteeing that their kid can get into Harvard. I’m guaranteeing that the education that they receive will get them into any kind of college that they want to go to.
I can’t promise them that they’re going to get a religious education if that’s what they want because I’ve got some constraints on that. But no, in terms of quality, Waco ISD provides just as good an education as Live Oak Classical. We compete with Vanguard, Midway, La Vega, and we say to all of them, whether you’re talking about SAT scores, football, choir, band, marching band competition, it don’t matter to me. Waco ISD going to be in the finals, and we’re looking to win every time.
WACOAN: Speaking of choir, I’ve heard you’re a pretty good tenor.
Nelson: Yes, sir. I was an all-stater in high school. I still do music to this day. It’s part of my leadership. I did some music to introduce myself here.
WACOAN: What kind of music did you do to introduce yourself?
Nelson: It’s on the internet. I’d encourage you to go and Google me and [search] YouTube [to find] some of the stuff we did for the teachers.
But yeah, music is part of who I am, and I write music. I’ve always been into that. I believe in music. Fine arts is my passion. I really, really believe that every kid should develop some type of fine art, whether it’s music or art or dance. I think those are important.
WACOAN: So you’ve got the fine arts side of you. You’ve also got the sports side of you. You played football at ACU.
Nelson: Yes sir, yes sir.
WACOAN: How can you encourage students to take part in the arts and athletics?
Nelson: I think there are some kids, humility aside for the moment, there are some special kids that man, when they start singing, they can sing. When they get on the football field, they can throw the football. When they get in the classroom, they can solve the equation. And I think we need to encourage a kid to do everything they want to do as long as they can do it.
Now at some point, you’ve got to start making some choices. Take it from me. AP biology is going to conflict with varsity choir, or varsity football is going to conflict with your chemistry lab or things like that.
But to answer your question, I think we should encourage kids to do as much as their hearts desire, as long as they’re willing to put in the work and understand if you’re going to play varsity football, be in the varsity choir and be the class president, you’re not going to have a lot of free time. You’re not going to have a lot of Saturdays.
But I really have felt called to leadership since I was in the third grade. I ran for class president as a third grader and lost. And I’ve been running for class president all the way through. I graduated from Abilene Christian as a senior class president. I just feel kind of called to juggling several balls at the same time and just making sure I’m one of the leaders who’s recognized for leading troops a certain way.
WACOAN: You said you grew up in inner-city San Antonio.
WACOAN: And you went to school at Abilene Christian University, which, like you said, was conservative and white. How’d you make that move?
Nelson: In my neighborhood in San Antonio, a church named MacArthur Park Church of Christ used to have a ministry where they would send these white painted school buses into the inner cities, into the projects, which is where I lived. You could get on the bus, and they would take you out to the church, and they would feed you. That’s what I remember the most, that they’d have dinner for you. Then the youth group had singing and then a little speaker, and then they put you on the bus and took you home.
And that turned into a scholarship for me at Abilene Christian University, just from getting on that bus that came through the neighborhood every Wednesday and Sunday. One thing led to another. By the time I was 16 and started driving, I didn’t have to ride the bus. I just started going to that youth group thing in my own car.
I remember the youth minister had graduated from Abilene Christian. And next thing you know, I got a letter in the mail saying we’d like to talk to you about joining our university athletic program. I didn’t finish playing athletics there, but it got me to school there, and then I got into leadership. I was junior class president and senior class president.
WACOAN: Of course.
Nelson: So that came with a scholarship and a grant.
Man, you know ACU, I couldn’t have been any more different than the kids I went to school with. I mean they were all, as you said, conservative, Anglo, great kids, great, great men and women. They’re my friends to this day. And I work with a lot of Anglo, educated people, and they remind me of my college buddies and how different we were then and how different we are today.
But there’s this unique appreciation for our differences. I think Mr. DeBeer would confirm that, that it makes us actually stronger because he gets to get a little taste of Nelson, and I get to get a little taste of DeBeer. Couldn’t be from two more different worlds. But you bring us together, and we’re covering a lot of ground.
WACOAN: Back to Waco ISD, you talked recently about budget cuts.
Nelson: Yes, sir.
WACOAN: Are there any budget cuts that are easy to make?
Nelson: No. There’s no easy budget cuts. Everybody identifies their program as a priority. We can’t survive without special [education]. We can’t survive without gifted and talented. By law we have to do English-language learners.
The bottom line is that, respectfully, the state of Texas has failed to properly fund public schools. They’re asking us to do more and more with less and less money. They haven’t changed the funding formulas for kids that are special ed, kids that are at-risk, kids that are English-language learners. Those funding formulas haven’t been changed in several decades.
So budget is probably — other than literacy — the biggest problem facing this district. Literacy is the biggest problem. Getting kids to read. But the second one is, how do you fund all of these programs and people? Eighty-nine percent of our budget is people, so the last thing that I want to do as a new superintendent — even though I said I’m not necessarily trying to be popular, man, I hate to come in and lay off hundreds of people. I know people [have] families. But 89 percent of my budget’s people, so if I’ve got to cut $3 million in budget, you can cut all the software you want, that will get you to about $200,000, and I’m supposed to be cutting $3 million. So the way that you do that is you start eliminating positions. And that’s never easy, and that’s not something we take lightly.
Hopefully we can do our budget in a way, we’ve already reduced our budget $500,000. And that’s been people, eliminating positions, repurposing positions, and it’s tough work. But we’ve done it so far in a way that has been to where we didn’t really disrupt a whole lot of family’s lives and livelihoods. We’ve just tried to be thoughtful about it. We’ll continue to do that.
WACOAN: You’re getting a really early start on budget, aren’t you?
Nelson: Right, right. We approved the budget September 1, 2017. We started on next year’s budget September 2.
WACOAN: Cost per student. Is there a correlation between what is spent per student and better performance? Do you see that?
Nelson: You know, I have looked at that chart. The last chart that I saw per pupil spending really shows that there’s a disparity. Places like Highland Park and Southlake Carroll, they have per pupil, I want to say some pretty big numbers compared to ours. So we need the funding formulas changed per student, and that would help us.
But to be quite honest, I’m not a politician, but House Bill 1842 [is] closing the schools. And people like me, people like Mr. DeBeer, people like our board of trustees, they know that, and they’re calling for adjustments in our per pupil allocation to get more in line with some of these more affluent districts.
WACOAN: Why did you choose education and not the ministry?
Nelson: Well, Mr. Tankersley, I’ll tell you. That’s an interesting question. You must have done your homework because I actually started out as a youth ministry major at Abilene Christian.
When you start out as a ministry major at Abilene Christian, they spend the first six months talking about calling. I’ve been taught that people who are writers feel called to write. They’d do it for free. And man, as I sat at Abilene Christian thinking about being a pulpit minister or being a youth minister, quite respectfully, God put it on my heart that I needed to be in public schools. And it was really to be a leader. At the time, it was more of a principal, something like that, but as I studied and continued to study, I feel most comfortable being responsible as a superintendent of schools for a group of kids.
I’d do this job for free. It’s not about the money for me. It’s about the opportunity to change lives. I really believe that no matter how poor these kids are, they can become scientists, journalists, leaders in schools, if they just get the right foundation. That’s where we come in.
WACOAN: Last question. Are you reading anything good right now?
Nelson: You know, it’s funny. Yes. The biggest book I’m reading is a book by Patrick Lencioni. It’s called ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.’ And that’s because I’m having to work with a bunch of new people that don’t know me and I don’t know them, and they had a controversy here last year where some people were escorted off the campus. I’m sure you know more about all that than me.
So when I walked in, there was a lot of walls up, and people didn’t know whether they were staying or going or whether I’d be giving marching orders. And so I had to work on building trust, establishing relationships. And that book is great.
What I just started [reading] with my principals — I’m going to let you take these.
WACOAN: That’s very kind.
Nelson: This one [‘Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom,’ by Lisa Delpit], I think you’re going to like. It’s about cultural conflict in the classroom. Eighty-nine percent of our teachers are Anglo females.
WACOAN: That doesn’t match the demographics of your district at all.
Nelson: This book addresses that. And then another book [‘Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,’ by Adam Grant] really on change and how to get people to think.
See, last thing I’m going to say is, I’m embarrassed to tell you, Mr. Tankersley, if you walk into Waco ISD schools today, they very much look like the same schools from 1950. You walk in, [students are] in rows, there’s a board up at the front.
I’m moving to something different. I’m moving to something that has technology in it. Every one of my kids, every one of my freshmen are about to get a laptop. Every one of my sixth graders are about to get an iPad.
Kids are going to come into class, and we’ll have a few desks, but we’re also going to have bean bags in the class. And the teacher can sit right here and know what you’re working on and sit right here and know what you’re working on and the kid back over there.
So it’s really just about getting people to stop thinking back like traditional schools of the ’50s and ’60s. That was based on kids who went and worked in crops in the summer. They were trying to get the crop in before September. That’s why school starts like that. Well, we ain’t got no kids picking cotton today.
Kids are sitting in the summer swimming, watching TV, playing video games. So why can’t I have them for seven weeks in the summer and help them, take them on a civil rights tour starting over in Kentucky and bringing them through Georgia and stopping through all these historical landmarks and changing their lives? Taking them down to San Antonio to the Institute of Texan Cultures and teaching them how our state was founded. You know, just providing differentiated learning experiences. And that’s what this book talks about. Yeah, I’d be interested for you to just know that our principals are reading both of these books right now.