by Alexis Christensen
I have the privilege to work with three elementary schools within Waco ISD. They each have their unique strengths and challenges. Today though, I’m highlighting one campus in particular, West Avenue Elementary, located in the heart of North Waco on 15th Street.
Waco Community Development began partnering with West Avenue in 2007. We started simply by asking people questions about their dreams and visions for their neighborhood and actively listened to their responses. Out of those conversations, our Family Engagement Program began. Today, when I ask people to describe what North Waco and West Avenue were like back then, I get responses like, “tore up” and “lots of prostitution and drug dealers” and “couldn’t see the good because of the bad.” When you looked at the neighborhood by the numbers during that time, it’s easy to see why people described their neighborhood like that. In 2009, there were 22 vacant retail/business spaces, 190 vacant residential lots, a poverty rate of 43%, and only 35% of residents were homeowners (NRS, 2009 & Census Bureau, 2000).
Yet, since the 2007-2008 school year, West Avenue has been rated by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as Recognized, Academically Acceptable and Met Standard. And more recently, an assessment conducted by Waco ISD monitoring children’s Pre-Kindergarten readiness showed that West Avenue students were among the most ready to learn among their peers (CLI Engage Assessment). I believe it is worthwhile to take a deeper look at a few factors that helped lay the foundation for West Avenue’s success.
- In its fourteen year history, West Avenue has had 2 principals.
Andreia Foster was the first principal when the campus opened in 2002. Her “open door policy” allowed Waco Community Development and other organizations to work with students and families. Ms. Foster remained principal until 2014. Her twelve year tenure at a single campus created stability not only for families, but for the teaching staff as well.
Sheree Goodman, who taught at West Avenue for 10 years, agrees: “Low turnover [among staff] is connected to academic success, but we were more than co-workers, we became a family… a network was established. The staff was family-oriented and all stakeholders were included in every process. We always tried to do what was best for the kids; we truly believed in the students,” she said.
This legacy lives on through West Avenue’s “new” principal, Joseph Alexander, who just finished his second school year. Mr. Alexander’s motto is “No child is left behind at West Avenue.” This is demonstrated through his vigor and big dreams for his campus. He stated, “I want West Avenue to be a Blue Ribbon campus, a model for the State of Texas. Our students are the best in the state. We will do what other people say we can’t do with children from poverty. We believe that children can learn and will learn if given opportunity to be successful.”
These beliefs and core values both inspire and motivate students and teachers to be the best.
- Residents and community organizations are committed for the long haul.
North Waco residents are not shy about their love for their neighborhood. An abundance of committed and trusted organizations and people live, work, worship and play in the neighborhood on a consistent basis. I would be remiss to try and name them all here; however, I’ve observed two main characteristics which distinguish these groups from others: their sustained commitment to learning from varying experiences and perspectives, and their deep held belief that trust is not a right due to them because of good intentions, but trust is a privilege to be earned. These practices are not cultivated overnight but develop with time.
- Homeownership is growing in North Waco.
Homeownership is a major factor in creating neighborhood stability. A growing body of research points out that homeownership has the potential to positively impact educational goals.
“Affordable and sustainable forms of homeownership can also help families achieve long-term stability. Research on the connection between homeownership and children’s education has found that homeowners tend to move less frequently than renters and that this may account for part of the difference in educational outcomes between children of homeowners and children of renters” (Holupka, C. Scott and Sandra J. Newman. 2010).
Waco Community Development was created with the lofty and ever galvanizing mission to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods. In 2001, we joined the ranks of housing entities like Waco Habitat for Humanity and NeighborWorks who strived to create a culture of homeownership. For us, working within a geographically defined area proved to be a successful model. Today, the homeownership rate in Census Tract 12 (North Waco area) is 42%, an increase of approximately 7 percentage points from the 2009 sample data (Census 2014). We have seen vested homeowners become PTA officers, volunteers and mentors for students at West Avenue. One such Waco Community Development homeowner not only became the PTA Treasurer, but her son was valedictorian of his 5th grade class last May.
The complexity of factors influencing neighborhood development can make it difficult to understand what particular cause created a particular effect. There are schools of thought that believe this to be a negative thing, but I see a positive in the midst of the murkiness: It allows people and organizations to be interdependent when tackling difficult issues within our communities. It doesn’t excuse us from critically evaluating our work or from pursuing excellence; it simply means we have the opportunity to reach out to partners all around us to create even greater positive impact.
West Avenue has learned to lean on and be leaned upon and I think that’s a piece of why it’s experiencing such great success. Former teacher Ms. Goodman said it best, “The school is still a pillar. People know they can go there for anything they need and the partners have become resources for both the community and the school.”
Alexis Christensen is a Community Organizer at Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC) where she focuses on community building, leadership development and building collaborations.
The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.
By Alexis Christensen
I’ve long been drawn to understanding how governmental systems work—whether it’s politics, civic engagement or policy. Often we think about law or policies from an impersonal perspective, but in reality, they can be very personal.
In Part One of this series we learned about the devastating effects payday and auto title lending has on our residents and our city. Because of the negative outcomes produced by these loans, many believe now is the time for action. In the world of community development, the grassroots movement becomes effective in creating change when community members who have experienced, dealt with or struggled through the situation voice their personal stories and ideas into the work.
So let us turn to the voices of the community, who have dealt with the negative effects of payday and auto title lending firsthand. For a moment, let us listen to the voices of experience.
Ms. Lewis, tell us your story.
Lewis: I am a single parent of two kids. My son is 17 years old and chronically ill and I have a 19 year old daughter in college. I got into desperate times and needed money due to my financial situation. I have to travel a lot with my son [to visit doctors]. He requires medicines through IV and has frequent doctor visits. Then I found out my daughter had medical issues too. I kept seeing all these ads and signs, so I went and got an auto title loan.
Christensen: How was that visit?
Lewis: Well, when I got the loan they made me feel so comfortable and they were so friendly but come to find out they were wolves in sheep’s clothing. As a single parent, I am stressed. I am trying to keep up with the bills and sometimes it’s hard but I do what I can to manage. When it comes to payday lenders, yes they are so nice and sweet when you first come through the door but…I wish I had never done it because of the outrageous fees they charge with interest and the harassing calls…When my son was in the hospital, they called me just about every day threatening to come and take my car, it was awful.
Unfortunately, Ms. Lewis is not alone in her experiences with payday and auto title lending. Let’s hear from Mr. Thomas, who is a veteran.
Mr. Thomas, tell us your story.
Thomas: I was in school and temporarily unemployed and took out both an auto title loan and a payday loan to catch up on my water and electric bills and pay for school. I actually got a job in the same week I took out the auto title loan, but couldn’t keep up with the loan payments and had my pickup repossessed. The original loan was for $1,000 and the auto title loan was for $4,000. I’ve been charged twice the amount of the original loans.
I’ll be paying these type of loans off forever because of the interest. There is no way to catch up. Me and my wife are currently trying to adopt our nieces and credit issues have come up as an issue [in the adoption process].
Lastly, let’s hear from Ms. Marks.
Marks: A long while ago I got an auto title loan for $500 and ended up paying $2400 on the whole thing. Loan interest rate was about 800%. I belonged to a credit union and explained situation and they bought out the auto title and payday loan.
It was so hard to get a loan anywhere else besides a payday loan place. The stores keep calling and asking about getting another loan. At [a local payday loan store] I got a loan for $150 and I’m on the way right now to pay $51 in fees today to extend it for two weeks and it won’t go toward principal. I have 6 months to pay it in full.
If I could change anything about them, lower the interest rate. They get away with it [high interest rates] because they say they’re not the lender and they can’t do anything about it.
These stories have come from people right here in our community. These brave ones have shared some of their most vulnerable moments with us to help see change happen at the local level. This is why the ordinance to help address the issues payday and auto title lending create is vitally important to our community. The ordinance is one part of the solution; we also need sound alternatives and education to see true systemic change. Find where you fit in this work and help create a flourishing Waco for all of us.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the community members.
Alexis Christensen is a Community Organizer at Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC).
(This post is one in a series on race titled “But Some of Us Are Brave.” The series includes posts from a diverse group of writers from our community. It takes a considerable amount of transparency and vulnerability for the contributors to this series to pen these posts and voice their experiences. We appreciate their courage, and we hope their willingness to be brave will spark some authentic community conversation on this sensitive and important topic. We hope you will read these posts thoughtfully and join the conversation by responding honestly and respectfully, and by sharing them with your friends and acquaintances. — ABT )
Normally I start a letter by asking how you are, but I don’t much care to ask how you are doing. Instead, I’ll get right to it: you’re really wreaking havoc in our communities and I’d like to see it stopped.
You are a bully. You like to push and prod. You coax us to think the worst about people, exaggerate stereotypes. A drop in the stomach when I see that man, that black man walking toward me. Fear, you urge us on.
Fear, you are not new to this job. No, your tactics were employed long ago to strip people of their identity, their pride, and their dignity. Slavery, Jim Crow, Segregation– I smell your stench in them all.
Your tactics have evolved. Even now, people are paralyzed from speaking or sharing because of you. Their words mangled and strangled because of your tight, tight grip.
Fear, you are not an excuse or cop out. We cannot blame you for the hate and enmity that exists between peoples. But you do cause us to pull away instead of drawing near to each other, which disables us from seeing the Beloved Community realized. We are then blind to the reality and beauty of each individual and the collective.
When we give you power, we allow you to destroy whole groups of people. Fear, you are no friend of mine.
But I know your secret. I know you flee at the first flicker of unity. You shrink back at the sight of common understanding. You groan under the weight of triumphant justice. And so, it’s really clear isn’t it? We can be victorious over you.
I’m saying goodbye. I have no time for you. You’ve ravaged too long the streets of Waco, the hearts of men and women, the dreams of little brown boys and girls.
I am a fool no longer.
I am joining hands with my sisters and brothers to dispel you. It takes more than some of us to be brave, I know that well. We need everyone to be brave so that our communities can be full of beautiful color and song again. We need to be brave so we can build and rebuild bridges long burned down.
Don’t bother looking for me again, fear, because I’ll be too busy walking free, hand in hand with my beloved community, working toward justice, peace and wholeness. And frankly, you’re not invited.
Alexis Christensen is a Community Organizer at Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC).