Meet the Superintendent

May 6, 2018

In June 2017, Dr. Marcus Nelson took the reins of Waco ISD, the largest school district in the area and an important partner for Baylor School of Education. Impact caught up with Dr. Nelson for an update on his innovative plans for the district and how Baylor plays a part.

Dr. Marcus Nelson

What is your philosophy of education?
Every student is capable not just of learning but of truly excelling, and it’s up to the adults in our students’ lives to set expectations accordingly. As an educational leader, I refuse to accept that “those kids” can’t learn or “those kids” won’t go to college. I’m committed to making sure that the zip code where a child is born doesn’t determine the quality of his or her education or limit the options available after graduation. As an instructional leader, I’m focused on equipping our teachers with the tools to make that vision a reality.

Why did you choose the K-12 public education setting for your career?
There are countless ways to serve, but few are as powerful as public education. This isn’t just a career for me; it’s a calling. In fact, my life is a testimony to the potential of public schools and an educator’s ability to make a difference. As a kid growing up in poverty on San Antonio’s northeast side, there were adults who saw me as one of “those kids” and thought they knew what I wasn’t capable of.

Thankfully, I had a math teacher who saw my full potential and held me accountable for my learning. His high expectations put me on the path to college, then to a doctorate, and ultimately to becoming a superintendent.

Dr. Marcus Nelson in a classroom

What do you see as Waco ISD’s advantages?
I was the superintendent in Laredo ISD for eight years before coming to Waco ISD, and in some ways the two districts are similar. In both, more than 85 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, and students of color account for more than 90 percent of the total enrollment. When I arrived in Laredo ISD, the district had nine low-performing campuses, and by the time I left, there weren’t any.

In some important ways, though, Waco ISD is unlike just about any other district in the state of Texas. Waco ISD’s 15,000 students are 60 percent Hispanic, 29 percent African American and 9 percent white. That diversity makes us unique and is one of our greatest strengths.

We’re also blessed to live in a community that will invest its time, talent and treasure in our schools. Last fall and again early this year, we held a series of community meetings to get input from our parents, teachers and other community members on how to transform our underperforming campuses. I was inspired by the number of people who showed up to share their thoughts and to express their support for our schools. I have been moved even more by the number of people who followed up by volunteering in one of our schools. This school year, we have almost 700 new volunteers in Waco ISD.

What is the advantage for Waco ISD of having Baylor Education students in the classrooms?
We’re so pleased that the partnership between Waco ISD and Baylor University has been recognized nationally for its role in training the next generation of classroom teachers. Baylor students are living out the values and vision of the University through their service in our classrooms. That connection is exemplified by the PDS partnership between Waco ISD and the Baylor School of Education. However, it isn’t the only partnership. The School of Education also partners through the Campus-Based Family Services project, improving behavioral management through direct intervention and teacher training. The Garland School of Social Work works with us on the BEAR project, which supports the social-emotional growth of our students. The Baylor Equestrian Team has adopted Alta Vista Elementary, providing books for kindergarten students and field trips for fourth graders. The Office of Community Engagement & Service connects students from Baylor with students at J.H. Hines Elementary as reading partners and tutors. The list goes on. There are few partnerships that have as profound an influence on our students as the one between Waco ISD and Baylor University.

Why do you like to spend time on school campuses?
As a superintendent, there are few things that are more valuable than getting out of the administration building and visiting campuses. You can tell principals that you want an objective on the board in every class. You can offer professional development on how to write effective objectives. But when you walk into a classroom to see what’s actually on the board, that’s when you demonstrate that it’s a priority.

Next, you have to build relationships. If you want your principals to share your vision, you have to understand the challenges that are unique to each campus. If you want your teachers to be relentless about the work, they have to know that it matters to you personally. If you want your kids to dig deeper, they have to know you care.

As you lead the whole district, do you feel it’s important that you have a background in classroom teaching and campus administration?
If you want to change the culture of a school district, you have to know what it will take for campuses to implement instructional strategies. If you want to have credibility when you raise the expectations for your teachers, you have to know the job inside and out.

I started my career as a fifth-grade teacher in the Garland Independent School District. I was an elementary teacher for two years and then moved to North Garland High School, where I taught Algebra I for the next two years. Over those four years, I earned two master’s degrees and my doctoral degree in educational administration.

I walked into the classroom knowing that I wanted to become a superintendent, but those four years in the classroom have been invaluable to me as an educational leader. It makes a difference to be able to say that I have experience in elementary school, in middle school (as an assistant principal), in high school, and in the central office.

Photos by Mary Senter/Waco ISD