By Megan Willome
Photographs by Marlo Collins
It’s a school, like any other school. Its colors are green and white. Its mascot is a raven. Elementary students read aloud, middle school students do history fair projects and high school students prepare for life after graduation.
But nothing about the three schools that comprise Rapoport Academy (RA) is like other schools. RA is not only above average — it’s exemplary, across the board. All three campuses and the 1-A Rapoport Academy Public School District have received ratings of ‘exemplary’ from the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
In this article, we invite you to meet the founder and superintendent of this remarkable charter school. This year’s Wacoan of the Year is Dr. Nancy Grayson.
Excellence Beyond the Norm
Those four words are RA’s slogan. The elementary, middle and high schools are committed to giving each student the best education possible.
“I can without a doubt say we are doing an incredible, outstanding job of educating children — all children. That’s what’s so much fun — all children,” Grayson said. “When I founded this school, I thought we would stay an East Waco entity. So I’ve been stunned by the Baylor professors, the professional people in town who’ve joined in with their children. It’s that rich in education for every child.”
When some schools experience this type of success, they want to keep their methods secret. That’s not Grayson’s goal.
“We’re building curriculum so that someone can come in and steal it. Come and steal it. Absolutely!” she said. “We don’t want to overtake school systems. We want to effectively be innovative, research-based, in a way that other schools can come and do what we do. We’ll even tell them the pitfalls. We’ll tell you where we fell through the holes on this one.
Take what we have. We don’t own it. We have children. Let’s do the best for children.”
RA takes children at whatever age they come, from little pre-kindergarteners to big ole’ high school seniors. Grayson looks at all of them the same way.
“We look at children from the standpoint of a 25-year-old: What do we need to do now to make them a successful, happy 25-year-old? How can we help them get there?” she said.
Community of learners
Talk about humble beginnings. The school began with 16 students at Wesley United Methodist Church in a basement that flooded every time it rained. Grayson credits Willa Jones, a teacher with a master’s degree and training at the Chicago Lab School, with helping her form RA. Both women were angry about low test scores in East Waco and eager to meet the needs of students.
“She is the reason that we began with pre-k rather than kindergarten, and goodness, was she right,” Grayson said.
The next year, the school grew to 74 students. Then in 2000, they had 122. For the 2010-2011 academic year, they have more than 400 students and 60 teachers at three schools. They are in the process of renovating five buildings on the Paul Quinn campus. When they finish, they will have the capacity to serve 700 students. Grayson wants to keep the campus small so that the community of learners — teachers, faculty, staff, parents and students — can remain intact.
The little engine that could
RA considers itself “the little engine that could,” an innovative school that doesn’t enjoy the same funding as other public schools.
Many people mistakenly assume that the school is kept afloat by the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation. Wrong. The school’s name is a tribute to the Rapoports, who have made education one of their philanthropic priorities. The foundation has donated money to the school, especially for college scholarships.
To broaden the base of support, RA created the Academy Alliance, a strategic partnership of businesses, corporations and individuals. It has received contributions from several foundations (including the Cooper Foundation, the Waco Foundation and the Gary and Diane Heavin Community Fund) as well as from individuals. The type of people who donate to RA aren’t looking for recognition. In fact, a donor who recently gave $500,000 toward the renovation of a building named the structure after his best friend.
The Academy Alliance underwrites Meyer Public High School’s annual Clean Energy Conference. It helps fund the Jazz Ensemble, the school’s emerging band program, and Chorale Fusion, a multi-age choir. It makes possible one-night college tours for sixth graders and two-night college tours for seventh and eighth graders.
Really? College visits for middle schoolers? RA’s college focus starts much, much earlier than most public schools. By the end of this school year, the pre-kindergarteners will be able to tell you what year they will enter college. The middle schoolers are already researching universities across the nation. By ninth grade, students are actually taking college courses.
To accomplish this goal, Grayson created a completely different school structure with limited administrative posts. At each campus, a dean of students provides student support and a master teacher provides academic support. They work together with teachers.
“The way we operate, everything we do is team oriented, and people don’t get it when they come to visit. They just can’t quite wrap their head around the team. It’s not committees. It’s groups of people that get together to decide what’s best for children,” Grayson said. “I get requests from grad students all the time, from all over: ‘Will you please fill out this survey on school principals?’ And I write them back and say, ‘We don’t have any.’ [They say,] ‘Who do you have that’s like it?’ [I say,] ‘We don’t. We really don’t.’”
What kinds of students attend RA? Grayson is quick to point out that the school doesn’t attract just one type of kid.
“You’d think it takes some touchy-feely kid to fit in. We’ve got ‘em all! We’ve got the naysayers and the funky and the traditional. They feel a sense of ownership to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” she said.
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!”
These words appear on an RA sign. One way the school saves its students from ignorance, while simultaneously saving them a little money, is by giving them the opportunity to begin earning college credit in ninth grade. The 2010 graduating class, RA’s first, earned a total of 588 college hours. Every single graduate was accepted to college.
This extraordinary achievement was made possible through an ongoing partnership with Texas State Technical College (TSTC). Students attending RA do not pay extra for these college hours — no tuition, no books, no fees. TSTC offers dual-credit classes on RA’s campus. Transportation to TSTC is provided free of charge to students who want to attend classes offered at TSTC.
This opportunity is only available to schools which are members of the Early College High School (ECHS) initiative, which is in 200 schools across 24 states and Washington, D.C. TSTC is the only technical college participating in ECHS in Texas. The program targets the students least likely to attend college, those who are at risk or economically disadvantaged or first-generation Americans or English-language learners. The goal is that these students will graduate high school with not only a diploma but also an associate’s degree or two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree. This approach saves money and time. If students graduate college earlier, they are more likely to go on to earn advanced degrees.
RA was officially designated an ECHS school through the Communities Foundation of Texas, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. This organization also funds the Texas High School Project, a public-private alliance, which sponsors the T-STEM initiative. T-STEM stands for Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. RA is both an ECHS and a T-STEM school.
“We did not know that we were the first [school] to get both designations,” Grayson said. “I was naïve. I thought everybody did that.”
Opportunities for learning at RA extend into the summer through camps.
“We want our students to continue their learning throughout the summer in order to reduce any academic losses. We design camps that will attract and impact students based on the age group,” Grayson said. “At the elementary, we have a summer camp designed as a fun venue. At the middle school, we hold a four-week camp with a theme: 2009 was archeology, 2010 was robotics. For the high school, we hold a camp for entering new students at all grade levels. The camp includes leadership activities, team building and ‘Rapoport way’ insight.”
A choice in public education
Running a school this way means doing things innovatively. That’s why charter schools were authorized by the Texas Legislature in 1995. Their mandate was to find creative ways to reach kids who were not succeeding in public school and whose families could not afford private school.
Charter schools are public schools, but they aren’t funded like other public schools. For example, Texas public schools are funded through property taxes — not so with charter schools. They are funded by the state through a separate fund, based on average daily attendance. Charter schools receive no state money for facilities, which is a big issue at RA where they are have already rehabbed four buildings and have one left to complete.
RA was awarded an $800,000 Best Practices grant in 2004 by the TEA. This grant funded the documentation of the strategies that have made the school district successful, and it funded the distribution of that information to other charter schools.
“That was four or five years ago, and we still get calls for those materials,” Grayson said.
Currently, Grayson is the chair of the Texas Charter School Association’s Quality Framework, a committee whose research will be used as a web-based tool for other states to use in their charter schools.
In March of this year, RA was the smallest charter school to testify at a hearing before the Texas Senate Education Committee. It was invited because it is considered one of the top five charter schools in the state.
“Boy, was that fun!” Grayson said. “I love talking to the Legislature, because they’re real people who care. And they’re so ill informed, sometimes. Or they’re well informed and don’t know what do with it.”
If students find that RA doesn’t meet their needs, then Grayson encourages them to move on.
“If this is not what they want, then they choose something else. It’s about choice in public education,” she said.
The fish bowl
So how does a prospective family attend RA? There is a fair process called a lottery draw. The school accepts transfers from 13 local districts, including Bosqueville, China Spring, Connally, Crawford, Gholson, LaVega, Lorena, McGregor, Midway, Riesel, Robinson, Waco and West. Other than pre-kindergarten, which adheres to criteria established by state law, enrollment in grades kindergarten through 12 occurs on a rolling basis until all spots are filled. Parents must fill out an application, schedule a meeting with the enrollment director and attend that meeting with their paperwork. An assessment test is given to determine the needs of each child. After that, it’s a standard lottery.
How does that work?
“Well, we actually have a fishbowl that says on the side ‘Lottery Draw,’” said Grayson. “We have parents who say, ‘I’m not going to apply because it’s too hard to get in.’ Everyone has an equal chance of being drawn. Everyone does. It doesn’t cost anything to put your name in the lottery draw. So why not put your name in?”
RA also conducts draws during the school year, for example, if a family moves midyear. The school maintains the names unless someone asks to have a name removed. Once a student is enrolled, he or she maintains enrollment. From then on, expectations are that the student will embody the school’s core values: respect, responsibility, integrity, creativity, curiosity and hard work.
Don’t suck it dry
Those core values extend to the parents as well. Parents sign a contract detailing their responsibilities, both at home and at the school. They might assist a teacher or join the Parents’ Gardening Club or the Fix-It Crew. This arrangement allows the school to get to know the parents.
“We have to know the families really well. We have to work at that,” Grayson said. “We have to have activities they can’t stand to miss, not, ‘You have to be here,’ but things that draw them in.”
Grayson believes that giving back is a duty.
“One of the reasons why I’ve given so much to the school is that my husband and I both share a philosophy that you either give back to your community what your family is sucking from it, or you suck it dry. You have two choices — only two,” said Grayson. “You either give back, or you take and don’t replenish.”
Grayson also provides opportunities for local businesses and individuals to give back to Waco through RA. They may mentor a child. They may purchase athletics uniforms. An engineer might talk with students about their robotics project. A builder might speak to a green engineering class that wants to add solar power on campus.
A labor of love
Much of the volunteer work at RA has focused on the ongoing renovation of the Paul Quinn campus. Paul Quinn College, chartered in 1872 by the African-Methodist-Episcopal Church, is the oldest historically black college in Texas. For more than a century, it was a centerpiece of the East Waco community. The school first offered industrial classes to former slaves but soon expanded to include liberal arts courses. Many teachers got their degrees at Paul Quinn. But money was always a problem, and in 1990, the college moved to South Dallas. The buildings were abandoned, nurturing weeds instead of students, until Grayson came along.
“I love being in East Waco. When I cross the river in the mornings, I’m home. It has expanded my life in a rich and meaningful way,” she said. “We are very committed to the restoration. It’s been a labor of love.”
The original Paul Quinn buildings are old but sound.
“There’s no way I would tear these buildings down. They are built like fortresses. They are like tornado shelters,” said Grayson. “The PSI, the compaction on the concrete, is what they don’t do anymore in construction. And every floor is concrete. Some of the walls are concrete. When you talk about the stability of a structure, these are awesome.”
But these buildings needed lots of work to get to that sturdy structure. Not only were vines growing over the windows; they were growing through them. There was poison ivy inside the building. Baylor University’s Kappa Omega Tau fraternity, a consistent partner, has removed wheelbarrows full of debris. All the work has been done with an eye toward preserving what can be saved. When redoing the math and science building, workers picked up unbroken, small, square blue tiles off the floor to reuse.
Quinn Middle School moved into the first of the renovated Paul Quinn buildings, the Moody Liberal Arts Building, in 2003. Four years later, the Sherman-Abingdon Library was reconstructed to become the Meyer High School Annex, one of two buildings currently used by the high school. In 2008, the Bishop O.L. Sherman Science Hall was returned to its original purpose — a center for science and math.
Currently, Grant Hall, a former dormitory, is being repurposed into a creative arts center for the middle school and high school. By the spring semester, it will house art, theater, music and creative dance. Downstairs, there will be a Curves fitness center where students will participate in the CurvesSmart program and do research. There will also be space for a culinary arts program.
“We’re not talking home economics,” Grayson said. This facility will train future chefs and dieticians and will include a student-run bakery.
The final building to receive an upgrade will be the Gomez Administration Building in the center of campus, which will become the primary building for the high school.
Gaylene Reed, director of community relations, said that Grayson kept pursuing her dream of renovating these buildings even when the going got tough.
“People told her she was nuts. The woman has given her life for 12 years to this dream. All of the last two years we called her Don Quixote — Nancy ‘Quixote’ Grayson,” Reed said. “She went in the face of everyone who said, ‘You’ll never do it’ or ‘You won’t get that building done.’”
Grayson has literally left her mark on this school. On every Quinn campus building that has been renovated, you’ll find her initials etched in cement, along with the year. At Grant Hall, now the Vance Dunnam Creative Arts Center, you can see the following inscription: “NG 2010.”
A great education for all students
Because I have a soft spot in my heart for middle schools, I asked to tour Quinn Middle School. Grayson accurately predicted what I would find.
“People are astounded when we go in classrooms,” she said. “I can talk at this [normal speaking] level with the visitor, and students don’t turn around. That’s apparently very rare. They’re doing something that they care about. Why would they want to look at me or anyone else who enters their classroom?”
She was right. Without exception, the students glanced in our direction then went right back to work. The teacher, used to such interruptions, hardly noticed our presence and kept right on teaching.
The classrooms are bright, thanks to tall ceilings and huge windows, most of which are covered with curtains that Grayson made herself. When students enter the classroom, they look for the words “Do Now” on the white board. Those words, and the instructions written beneath them, ensure that no learning time is wasted.
The school’s core values are posted at every classroom, as are the year each grade level will enter college. For example, one sign said, “We start college in …” and then below, it said, “6th — 2017.”
Think about that for a minute. Usually, the year a student enters college is the same year he or she graduates high school. Most schools emphasize the year of graduation, as in Class of 2011. RA emphasizes the year they start college. It’s not about getting out. It’s about moving on.
One thing that struck me was that most of the teachers were wearing jeans. They didn’t look sloppy, but they didn’t look like fashion plates, either.
I asked Dr. Matthew Polk, the assistant superintendent, to comment.
“The phrase Dr. Grayson uses is, ‘We have the most fun we’ve ever had doing the hardest work we’ve ever done.’ We’re not about appearance. We’re about substance. Our job is to educate kids. Part of that education is about how to be professional. People may ask, ‘Why don’t the teachers dress more professionally?’ But if they can do their job effectively, then that is professionalism for us,” Polk said. “When you get down to it, teaching is a hard job — 180 days a year of really getting down and dirty and being active and hands on, and we want our teachers and our students to be dressed for work.”
Here’s a brief overview of all three schools:
Rapoport Elementary School, 2000 J.J. Flewellen Road: Exemplary
The elementary school serves students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. The school’s original charter includes a focus on entrepreneurship so that kids understand how businesses work. Each class runs a business: pencils, healthy snacks, silly bands, calendars. The students apply for jobs within the business, they submit business proposals, they make presentations and they keep profit and loss records. The money they earn stays with their class. When they are seniors, they decide how to use it.
Quinn Campus Public Middle School, 1020 Elm Avenue (Quinn Campus): Exemplary
The middle school campus serves fifth through eighth graders. Following the completion of the Gomez Administration Building, the fifth grade will move into what is now the Meyer High School Annex. They are currently housed with the middle school because there wasn’t space for them in the elementary building.
In preparation for a rigorous high school experience, students are focusing on the new ‘3 Rs’ — research, rocketry and robotics. Middle schoolers learn to discipline themselves through the Behavior Points System, in which they earn points for negative behavior. An accumulation of those points may keep them from attending a school dance, or worse, a college tour.
Meyer Public High School, 1020 Elm Avenue (Quinn Campus): Exemplary
Meyer High School opened in 2006 and became a 1-A UIL school in 2008. Students meet in two refurbished buildings on the Quinn campus, and they attend classes at TSTC. The high school participates in extracurricular activities as well as sports, including basketball, cross-country, golf, swimming, tennis, track and volleyball. Last year, the boys basketball team made the Class 1A playoffs. Foreign languages offered include German, Latin, Spanish and Chinese (Mandarin).
“We offer Chinese now, because the students asked for it,” Grayson said. “They said, ‘We can’t be global, economic leaders if you don’t provide Chinese.’ And I said, ‘Well, dad-gum. Let’s get you some Chinese! That was a student from an economically disadvantaged, dysfunctional family — not a college family. How could I turn him down?”
Rapoport Public School District: Exemplary
Grayson must be doing something right. The attendance rate at RA is more than 97 percent. The percentage of students passing state standardized tests at all grade levels is a whopping 93.2 percent (writing, 92 percent; reading, 95 percent; math, 90 percent; science, 89 percent; social studies, 100 percent). That makes it one of the top districts in Central Texas on scores alone.
The RA district is also diverse. In the 2009-2010 school year, 70 percent of the students came from economically disadvantaged households, 45 percent were considered at-risk youth and 68 percent were minorities.
Dr. Nancy Grayson: Exemplary +
If there were a category higher than ‘exemplary,’ we’d award it to her. As it is, she’ll have to settle for Wacoan of the Year.
When I arrived for our interview, I was told Grayson was changing clothes.
“I was in my overalls, and I was afraid you were going to take a picture, so I took my overalls off and changed before you came over here,” Grayson admitted. About 30 minutes after the interview, she was back in her office, wearing her overalls. And really, picturing Grayson in her overalls is the best way to picture her, because she’s too busy working to talk about herself.
Unfortunately, her staff doesn’t want to talk about her either. They don’t want to be quoted because they want it all to be about Nancy — the Nancy who won’t talk about herself. If they have to be quoted, they prefer to quote her.
“We are engaged in the relentless pursuit of each individual student’s success,” said Polk, now in his third year as assistant superintendent, quoting Grayson. (As a side note, Polk earned a doctorate in history from Harvard University, but he didn’t tell me that. He told me he is good at cleaning grease traps. That’s the kind of humble attitude Grayson fosters at RA.)
Polk also repeated Grayson’s mantra: “It’s all about the kids.”
No one knows that better than the parents.
Concherra Woolfolk is the mother of a sixth grader who started the school in pre-kindergarten. She has a younger son who will be eligible to attend RA next year.
“I just love the school, period,” Woolfolk said. “I run a day care, and I recommend it to everyone there.”
What does she tell them?
“I tell them I have a great school that my son attends, and I fill them in on how they challenge the children and how the teachers are great. It’s like a private school, but not a private school — without having to pay for private school. They really care about the children there. They have a passion about the children and for their jobs.”
Last year’s Wacoan of the Year, Mark Osler, was an RA parent before he and his family moved.
“Perhaps the most striking thing about Dr. Grayson is that her passion so perfectly fits the world’s great need,” Osler said. “She has an effective combination of compassion and toughness. There is a wonderful fierceness in her — a tenacity about pursuing what should be rather than what is easy or conventional. It is that, more than anything, that marks the heroes, the prophets, and those who tie their identity to an idea rather than pride.”
Osler wrote a glowing editorial about the school, in which he recalled being reprimanded in the dining hall for talking too loudly.
“It’s just like Mark said in the newspaper,” Grayson said. “When he made too much noise in the cafeteria, we called him down. And we did! Because he’s not special. It’s about children here.”
However, Grayson did have one criticism of Osler’s piece — he described her spraying weeds and wearing an orange jumpsuit.
“I do take exception to him saying that I was wearing an orange jumpsuit. I own no jumpsuits. They were orange overalls,” she said.
This overall-wearing educator graduated with a bachelor of arts in French and English and a minor in psychology from Southwestern University in 1971. She also earned her teaching certification and began her career as the first psychology teacher in Dallas ISD. Grayson stayed home for a few years after her daughters were born and designed children’s clothing that was sold at apparel outlets in Dallas, Atlanta and New York. Eventually, she came to Waco and taught psychology at Vanguard College Preparatory School for 10 years. During that time, a new opportunity presented itself.
“I was asked by College Board and Educational Testing Service to be on a team of six educators, college and high school, nationwide, to develop the Advanced Placement psychology test. It was an incredible professional experience — one of my most valued,” she said.
In 1993, Grayson completed her master’s degree in educational psychology at Baylor. She also taught psychology as an adjunct professor at McLennan Community College for several years. Grayson earned her doctorate in psychology from Texas A&M University in 2004, six years after she founded RA. The title of her dissertation was “The Role of Parental Involvement in the Amelioration of the Effects of Low Socioeconomic Status on Academic Achievement.”
Grayson and her husband, Robert Grayson, M.D., have lived in Waco since 1978. They keep breakfast and dinner as family time, and they still maintain that tradition now that their two daughters are grown.
“Both of them are now in Austin, although they’ve been everywhere. One’s an architect, one’s a science teacher — two girls in non-traditional female roles,” Grayson said proudly.
She also has two granddaughters.
“The 8-year-old has won the regional science fair in Austin, and the 4-year-old just discovered that she can blend sounds and read words. Yes, I am a proud ‘Mimi,’” she said.
Perhaps the most fitting quote about Grayson came from her husband.
“She’s not looking for the spotlight,” he said. “She’s looking out for the kids.”
And so, it’s all about the kids. As it should be.
WACOAN: It has been hard to educate the greater community about Rapoport Academy, who you are and what you’re doing. What do you want people to know about you?
Grayson: The biggest issue is they don’t understand that we’re public. We still get calls, ‘How much is tuition? I would love for my child to come, but I can’t pay the tuition.’ There is no tuition. We are a public school. Now we say free, we say public, then we say no tuition, hoping it gets through, but it doesn’t. We can go and give a talk at an entity and say, ‘Free. Public. No tuition. Anyone can come here.’ And the first question usually is, ‘How much do you charge?’ That’s one of the misconceptions.
WACOAN: Each of your schools and the Rapoport Academy Public School District as a whole have been rated ‘exemplary.’ What does that mean and what does it not mean?
Grayson: It means credibility at the state level. It means our kids can pass a test on focused material. It means that our teachers are including those [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)] in what they’re teaching.
My philosophy is if we teach only to the TEKS, we are telling students that is all they need to know and all they are capable of learning. To me, that is demeaning. I’m not opposed to teaching the TEKS. I agree that it’s all information they need to know.
WACOAN: You have talked about TEKS as a slab on which you’re building.
Grayson: Absolutely. An architectural view of learning. A slab is uninteresting. It is small. It is constrained. But once you put those sticks up, which is what you build as it is integrated with the TEKS, the kids want to know, ‘How many walls? What do the studs look like? How do I sheetrock? What kind of roof should I put on? Should it have gables? What kind of curtains? What color is it going to be? Am I going to have flowerbeds outside?’ They want the full picture. [But] when we tell them, ‘No, no, no, no, no. That’s not in the TEKS. Let’s go back to that concrete.’ Then you become a worksheet school — a scripted worksheet school.
The TEKS, the TAKS test, we’re happy to do it. I think accountability is essential. You do need an apples-to-apples to compare across. But if we say that’s all we should teach — I’m so not there.
WACOAN: You wrote an op-ed piece on the occasion of Rapoport’s first graduating class. You said, ‘Founding the school has been life changing for me, personally and professionally.’ Can you tell me a little more about that?
Grayson: To start with, professionally, I’ve been an educator all my life. My Ph.D. is in psychology, not in education — early cognitive development and social psych. So for me, when I looked at what was going on in East Waco at the time, educationally, in the mid ‘90s, 30 percent of the third graders could pass the TAAS (it was TAAS at that time), and 10 percent of fifth graders. And I thought, ‘There have to be different ways that are researched-based that excite children about education.’ Because all children are sponges. They’re eager. They’re learners. And so in my anger and in starting the school, I thought I could do a better job. And from a professional standpoint, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. That’s really the bottom line. If I had known how much I didn’t know, I would not have done it.
At the school here, we’re a rarity. We celebrate mistakes. And I think in so many school venues, people are afraid to own up that they made a mistake in choosing a text or choosing a program or dealing with a student or whatever the issue is. Here, we own up to our mistakes. And we celebrate them because they help us realize how we could have done it differently — more effectively.
So I would say that across the board, we are all about growth, rather than, ‘Let’s find the way.’ There is no ‘the way.’ We are strong because we have made outstanding mistakes. We tell our staff every August, ‘Go out and make those well-grounded mistakes.’ Not fly-by-night things, but well-grounded mistakes. A lot of adults feel like if they admit to being imperfect, it’s a reflection of who they are. Here, it is a reflection of who we are! And it’s a positive thing.
So it’s fun, but it’s darn hard work. We work harder than you can imagine. I still put in 70 hours a week, and I have since the school started. I’ve changed professionally within this school. I am a different person.
WACOAN: How have you changed personally?
Grayson: This is year 13 on site. I know now what I would have missed personally, but I would have never known that. The people I’ve met, the families who I feel like are part of who I am, some of my children from year one who are with us now. Those families are like my family. As one of the moms said the other day, ‘You’re just a second mom. Do what you want to do with them.’
I go out. I garden. The community comes by. They honk and they wave. They volunteer to help, even though they don’t have kids here. The acceptance level has been extraordinary over time. Once they realized that I was not coming with an agenda. I just wanted to help the kids.
I love East Waco. I want to see East Waco come alive again in all ways. Maybe I should rephrase that — it’s already alive. But how can we help it emerge to its full potential for the people in East Waco? My fear is that East Waco will be renovated or repurposed in a way that excludes the community. That’s not my goal. ‘No, no. Back off!’
When I look at being part of the catalyst for change, that weighs heavy on my heart. Making sure it’s not a change that replaces the population but instead better serves the population and includes other populations.
WACOAN: Paul Quinn College was vital to East Waco before it relocated to Dallas. How does that tie into your vision as you’ve been restoring the buildings on campus?
Grayson: That’s interesting, because you’re sitting in Grant Hall. You may not realize Grant Hall was built in the 1800s, and it burned to the ground in 1952. This does not actually look like the original 1800s building. This one was built in 1954 and then deserted when Paul Quinn moved to Dallas. It was the little cubicle dorm spaces. Windows out. Poison ivy growing through the building. Devastated. And people said, ‘Nancy, you just need to tear that down.’ Just like they’re saying to me now about Gomez [Administration Building].
Look at that gorgeous building [points out the window]. That’s Gomez! Twenty-three classrooms. We will be finished, but it’s $2.2 million. Imagine, in this economy! We have no tax base. We cannot do bonds. Our hands are tied. It has to come from individuals or it has to come from foundations — $2.2 million. But imagine that building as the focal point on the campus. Won’t it be gorgeous?
What we try to do is maintain the history by taking the buildings and bringing them back to life in a way that they were used before. So it is an educational facility once again, but we do repurpose the buildings for today’s education. We don’t need dorm space, but we need creative arts space to enrich children’s lives in an academic way.
So each building I have written grants for we have renovated in a style that when the alumni come back, they’re tearful, because they do remember these buildings. It takes the past, and it builds on it toward the future. Some entities have come to the campus and they have renovated without a care toward historic preservation. This campus has a historic survey on the [National Registry of Historic Places]. That doesn’t mean that each building must be renovated in that style, but the campus itself is a historic survey. The campus has the big placard, and we will resurrect it once Gomez is finished, when we feel that the campus is the showplace for East Waco that it needs to be. We are very committed to the restoration. We have five buildings on campus. We have done four. It’s been a labor of love.
People now say things like, ‘How did you get the campus?’ I wish they had seen it: the weeds and the metal and the garbage — you couldn’t walk across the campus. There were no lawns. There were no green spaces. We were the first on the campus before these other buildings. Nobody wanted this place. It was full of snakes and vagrants and water standing in the buildings. I mean, people looked at it and said, ‘This is a travesty. Why would anyone want to be there?’ I went through every building in the mid to late ‘90s, and I just felt like this was where we needed to be. I never wanted to be anywhere but East Waco for the school.
WACOAN: Why was that?
Grayson: For the population. For change. For choice in public education. The beauty is the state gives the money for the child. The schools feel like it’s their money — it’s not. It’s not my money. It’s not anyone else’s. The state is paying for the child to get that education. The money follows the child.
And we’ve known that from the first. If we don’t deliver a better product, then those parents and those children will vote with their feet. They’ll go somewhere else, and they should. Choice in public education changes the view of education and where we can take it. So that’s exciting. Yeah, students leave us sometimes to go to another school. But that’s what it’s about. What fits you the best? What feels the best? Where can you get the most success and be well-educated? So they should go wherever it suits them.
From that standpoint, for Paul Quinn to move to Dallas and for Quinn campus to become an educational venue that draws students from 13 districts into the heart of East Waco. How cool! How revitalizing is that!
WACOAN: How hard was it in the beginning to get East Waco parents on board?
Grayson: I asked one of my parents who’s had a child here for all 12 years (this is year 13). He’s graduating. And I said, ‘Why in the world did you believe in us?’ She said, ‘Nancy, there was something about you, about your face, that told me you would get my child there.’
And I think, ‘Oh my word! I was so incredibly naïve back then, thinking I could do it.’ But he’s a great kid, and he wants to be an engineer.
I love my families. I work hard to know them well enough to visit with them, to know what they want for their children. To know their children well enough. To be in the classroom often enough to say, ‘I just visited with your son today.’ They understand that I care about their kids. I lay awake in the middle of the night and worry about their kids. And yes, I have taken children home before, and I would do it again tomorrow in a heartbeat.
WACOAN: Enrollment is conducted through a lottery. Explain how that works.
Grayson: Our first draw at the elementary is a little unique. Public schools are schools of choice, and we want to be a choice first for those students who don’t have a choice. At elementary, our first lottery draw is the 76704 zip code, which is a low-income population overall. Every other campus and multiple lottery draws at the elementary are open to everyone from 13 school districts.
WACOAN: So there’s a certain number at the elementary that’s just for the 76704 zip code?
Grayson: No, it’s not a set number. If we have two kids who apply for fourth grade from 76704, then that would be it. It just depends on who puts in their application by mail. The application for the lottery draw is very simple. It’s not like we’re asking for life history or anything.
WACOAN: Then, for middle school and high school, it’s a lottery for everyone?
Grayson: Everyone. Any student already enrolled maintains enrollment. Siblings get priority in the lottery draw, and the reason we say that they can’t have just automatic entry is because we have a finite number per grade level. If we have six siblings who want to be in kindergarten, and we only have two spots, then those siblings are the only ones we draw from. There are some criteria that the state sets. You shouldn’t split families, and we believe in that.
WACOAN: Do you have more students from the neighborhood than from other districts?
Grayson: This year I have not looked at our demographics chart to see. We should pin those on a map and look at that. We’re getting a bigger dispersion across the other districts. Within our geographic boundary, we have Riesel, Gholson, West, and we have students from most of those places. Lorena, Crawford, China Spring. Many times it’s because the parent works in town and that makes it convenient for them to drop them off.
We are seeing that the word is hitting the street about the level of education we offer. And parents from a greater distribution geographically are looking to get their children here. And there are many times that we’ll have a spot open in a grade level because someone’s moved. People think it’s a really difficult school to get into. Not necessarily.
WACOAN: I had read that you don’t take a salary. Is that still true?
Grayson: Well, you know why I take a salary now? The foundations wouldn’t support us. They said, ‘You’re not reputable. If something happens to you, you can’t have someone else come in and lead this school because you’re not paid.’ The first six years were nonpaid, and now I take what a teacher takes. Now what do I do with my salary? Yeah, most of it comes back to the school.
One of the other big misconceptions is that we are supported by an endowment or foundation. Our funding is a huge issue.
WACOAN: You only get about two-thirds of the amount of state funding per student that traditional public schools receive, correct?
Grayson: Well, it’s a little more than that now because we fought for state-average funding, but it’s still lower. It’s a state average for charter schools, basically. Small school districts in Texas get a small-school allotment for economy of scale — we don’t get that. We also get no facilities funding, no maintenance for facilities funding. None. None of that. We also get only an apportioned amount of Title I versus the full amount. It’s a formula, and the formula runs like this: if we have 100 students from Midway, and all of our 100 are free/reduced lunch (free/reduced lunch is the standard for Title I), and if Midway has a 30 percent Title I population, we only get 30 percent of our 100. We get cut every way you look.
WACOAN: What do you do to raise the rest of the money?
Grayson: Grant writing. From the day I opened the school, I realized, ‘Oh you are so in trouble financially.’ And we have stayed in the black since we began. And we have no debt.
I’d never written a grant before I started this school. In my doctoral work, they required me to write a proposal. That is the only experience I ever had. So I started grant writing, and I would say that until the economy nose-dived, I had a 95 percent return on my grant writing, which is excellent. When I look back at the first couple I think, ‘You were so bad at this.’ But again, you make your mistakes so that you learn.
The problem is finding the time. I’ve written as many as 80 in a year. But I also do [Human Relations], and I do curriculum, and I do school management, and I do visits with students and I’m on every campus every day if I can be. I’m in the classrooms. So my grant writing in the past has been in the middle [of the night] — 3 to 5 [a.m.].
Yet we are ‘exemplary’ on each campus. We’re ‘exemplary’ as a district. We are a public school. No one pays a dime to come here. We have kids from doctors, lawyers, engineers. We have kids whose parents are destitute. We have the full range. We have special ed. We have non-special ed. We are a public school, and we are lottery drawn, but we are funded like the poor stepchild. We’re Cinderella in the corner, sweeping the hearth and keeping the flames burning.
WACOAN: What is your relationship with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?
Grayson: In 2006, the first year of our high school, I got a letter from the Gates Foundation, and they wanted to come and talk and wanted to know if we were interested in working with them. Of course, I didn’t think they knew who we were. I’m sort of here in East Waco. I don’t get out a lot.
After months of the process with them and multiple site visits, the woman sat down with me and she said, ‘Here’s what we want you to do,’ and it was about replicating the school at multiple sites and maybe around the state. And I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I think we’ve gone down this path for nothing. We’re really not interested, so we can close this discussion.’ She looked at me and said, ‘But Nancy, we’re the Gates Foundation.’ I said, ‘But we’re the Rapoport Academy. That doesn’t fit.’ She was stunned. I don’t think she’d ever had anybody say, ‘We don’t want to work with you.’ But we will not give up who we are and what we are for someone’s money. We’re here for the children.
So after this pregnant pause, [the woman from the Gates Foundation] finally said, ‘Well, what if you just do more of what you’re doing and build that as a model?’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re talking again.’ So we’ve had a four-year relationship with them. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s rich in programs.
WACOAN: What does having the Early College High School designation mean for Rapoport?
Grayson: The ECHS designation gives us the opportunity for students to start college coursework in ninth grade. If you’re not an ECHS, you can’t do that — not direct, dual-credit coursework. You can do [Advanced Placement] work. Our students in eighth grade, at end of eighth grade, on the [Iowa Test of Basic Skills], they’re scoring between 10th grade and first year of college — at the end of eighth grade.
So you have to look at the boredom effect. If they’re so high functioning at the end of eighth grade, which is middle school, what are you going to do with them next? Bored students are trouble. There’s no way around that. You have to continue the challenge. You have to ramp things up even more. It was perfect for us to start a college venue within our high school.
And that’s the goal behind the ECHS program in Texas, to compress high school and expand into college simultaneously. Our students can earn — we know they can earn 60 hours — but if they use their summers wisely, they can earn up to 72 hours of college. Now whether colleges accept that credit or not is another issue. But if they go to a state school, the course coding matches, and they will transfer.
The good news about the college coursework is that students can try out things in majors they think they want to pursue. And then they can discover whether that fits or not. They haven’t wasted their time and their money. They can start off as sophomores or juniors in college and save themselves one to two years of tuition. Because the coursework with us is free. The tuition is free. The software’s free. The books are free. We provide everything. That’s one of the parameters of the ECHS program in Texas. We are required to offer it for free.
Our Institution of Higher Ed (IHE) is TSTC. Most people don’t realize that at TSTC, you can do all your core coursework. You can do British lit. You can do psychology. You can do so many things. They think it’s only technical, plumbing, electrical, and it’s not.
We also offer more high-end courses within our structure. We have engineering. We have green engineering. We have green construction at the high school. And we’re looking at how that dovetails with some of TSTC’s coursework and their coding.
WACOAN: And the T-STEM initiative?
Grayson: The T-STEM starts in sixth grade with an approach to integrating science, technology, engineering and math. We’re doing a great job. We have robotics in middle school. All kinds of cross-content. We don’t want to give students a perception that math is pigeonholed and has nothing to do with history, and that has nothing to do with science. [It’s like,] ‘Gee, you’re in math. Don’t think about anything else but math, and when you walk out of that door don’t think about math anymore.’ Life is not like that. Life is very real. It’s very integrated. You need everything to function.
We start the college approach in elementary. Our pre-k students will tell you what year they start college. We’re geared toward college and T-STEM all at the same time, so it was a beautiful fit, because we weren’t changing the way we operate. We just made it richer.
WACOAN: How has Meyer Public High School grown and developed?
Grayson: Our first year at the high school, we had 15 students — ninth graders. Imagine six teachers and 15 students! That was a crusher financially, but we managed.
We have our little yellow school buses out there, little used yellow school buses. They go to TSTC all day long, taking these kids to classes. But they have this campus to call home.
We’re very student directed at the high school. We don’t say, ‘We’re going to have these clubs. Now, who wants to sign up?’ Students say, ‘We want this club.’ They submit a proposal with signatures. And if it looks good, we’re good to go. We’ll support it. We’ll help them with it.
They also asked, ‘Will we get to have our own prom?’ Sure! ‘Will we have our own graduation?’ Sure! ‘Sports?’ We are a 1-A UIL school, and so our students do participate in sports with the exception of football. We will never have football while I’m here. Football is expensive, and it becomes a focal point outside of the academic venue, and we are college prep.
We expect 100 percent of our students to go to college, period. And last year, with 24 kids, that’s exactly what we had. One hundred percent graduated. One hundred percent were accepted to college. One hundred percent enrolled. We’re getting ready to go back and look at how many have survived. They also took 588 college hours with them — for free.
Our students will tell us, ‘I want bumper stickers because I want everyone to know that I’m at Rapoport Academy at the Meyer High School.’ This is their school. They have taken ownership. Once they step in, the school culture itself here is of learning, supporting each other, reaching rigorous standards.
WACOAN: That is a different culture than at most high schools.
Grayson: There’s a real different feel on our campuses. We have a group of students called the Community Council. If a student is not following through on core values consistently, or breaking a community expectation — the Community Council was formed because the students said, ‘Can we do the discipline? Can we help pull students back into the community?’ We said, ‘Sure.’ An adult staff member sits in on the meeting, but does not interact. They’re making sure nothing goes overboard. There’s no hazing. There’s no unexpected consequences that are levied. And those students are very thoughtful as they visit with whichever student it is. That’s been very effective. That’s something college campuses have. We modeled that on the honor council at Southwestern [University].
We also have office hours at the end of day. When you’re in college, your professors post office hours, and you go by and get help or visit. We have office hours every day from 3:40 p.m. to 4:10 p.m. Students stay for help and all the teachers are on site for that. They know when they can get help — at office hours. Again, it’s a time after school that other schools might call tutoring. We don’t call it that because we are transitioning to college, so we call it office hours.
WACOAN: How would you describe the atmosphere of your campus?
Grayson: It’s a rich environment that we call ‘decidedly diverse.’ Everyone’s over here. Our kids make strong, long-term friendships with each other, and it’s not based on the color of their skin or where they live or how much money they have or what religion. It’s not. It’s based on being in an educational environment that’s positive.
At carpool time, you see it played out for real. Our parents stand outside and visit with each other. When I say ‘our parents,’ it’s everybody — it’s just the American mix out there. Most of the times at schools, you just carpool. You get in your car and go, right? Not at the middle school. The boys ask their parents to pick them up 30 to 45 minutes late. Now, you tell me what middle school student is going to ask to stay late? They have their own football games on the grounds. They self-organize into teams. There are no fights. They have a blast. Then, 30 to 45 minutes later they’re all tossing their jackets back on and saying, ‘Bye!’ and they’re getting in their cars, and they’re happy, and they go home. How cool! The parents begin to line up at carpool time just so they can visit with each other for the 30 to 45 minutes that their kids are playing football together. Now that’s rich!
WACOAN: You’re doing things very differently than in a traditional public school, so I’m interested to know how the schools are structured.
Grayson: I threw everything away about six years ago because it just didn’t feel right.
Many times my serious thinking is done on the riding lawnmower out here because nobody bothers me, and I can really think clearly. And it’s a loud mower. And it’s eight acres — it takes me a long time. My ah-ha moments frequently come during those times.
I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve been thinking about how a school is structured, and that’s all wrong. I should think about what kids need in order to be successful.’ So I went at it a totally different way, and I thought, ‘If I had a group of children, what is it they need in order to come out with a fabulous education?’
And one is academic engagement. Academic engagement includes rigor in the classroom. It includes exciting content. It includes effective delivery. It includes classroom management. It includes an environment that is learning friendly. That’s one thing they need. We’d always had high standards for academics, way beyond the TEKS. So if we have academic engagement, what’s the other side? How are they going to reach that standard? Well, they have to have support.
OK, so we’re going to have a dean of students on each campus for that, and we’re going to have a master teacher on each campus. ‘Master teacher’ has become a moniker across the board in education, but this is way before then. Our master teacher has no classroom of his or her own, and is in charge of that academic engagement. So they are in the classrooms every single day, offering support, offering suggestions, knowing what’s going on in those classrooms, helping teachers grow, helping students be engaged.
The key to that is they do no evaluation of teachers whatsoever, because if they evaluate, there’s not a single teacher who is going to come and ask them for help. Duh! So you see the kind of logic we build on here. How do we do this to help students be successful? The dean of students and the master teacher work together. So people will say, ‘Oh, the dean of students deals with behaviors.’ Not necessarily. They’re a team. They work together on everything. We do have certain things we expect out of each, but they cross over each other’s lines, and they support each other in the endeavor of each student’s success.
WACOAN: How do you find good teachers?
Grayson: The first year we had three great teachers. We were lucky. I don’t know how we did it. But after that it was, ‘Where are we going to get teachers?’ because they didn’t want to work for these dastardly charter schools like the one that was shut down, [Emma L. Harrison Charter School]. We did suffer through that for a while, really having to reach to get teachers and train hard to get growth.
Now it’s like a candy shop. We did not post for jobs this year. And people say, ‘You don’t have any jobs. You didn’t post.’ We had 200 to 300 applicants from all over the U.S. Now it’s really fun.
We have a three-part process. We don’t have a true application. We have an information sheet they fill out on the web so that we can contact them. We build a portfolio first. They have to submit their resume, their transcripts, their certifications — yes, we have certified teachers, or in the process of certification. That portfolio is graded by several people with a plus, a check or a minus. The reason we have several do it is that it’s very subjective.
I look for things that stand out. Are you an Eagle Scout? Are you a self-starter? We look for the quality of their education, where they got their degree. I read every line of their transcripts. I want to know, ‘Did you start off weak and end strong? Did you start off strong and end weak?’ It’s not looking for a GPA only. We’re looking for the quality of education. This individual is going to be responsible for educating children.
Anybody who gets three pluses across the three graders will get an interview. Mixed ones, we’ll sit down and talk about amongst the readers. We’ll say, ‘Why did you give them a plus?’ or ‘Why did you give them a check?’ ‘Is this someone we really need to look at?’
In the interview, with me and another person, it’s not a formal interview with all the questions. It’s a conversation. And I know at the end of the interview if this is someone who has potential to be with us. Some people will get an invitation at that point.
And I will say, ‘If you want to go further with this application process, we invite you to do an in-class activity for 15 to 20 minutes in a classroom.’ Some of them say, ‘Well, I’d rather not do that.’ I say, ‘That’s fine.’ Of course, you know what happens when they walk out the door. ‘You want to teach children, and you don’t want to show me you can teach?’ I’ve got a problem with that. They go by the wayside.
Then people come and do that in-class activity, which is somewhat ambiguous in the instructions we give — on purpose. So we can see, ‘Are you flexible? Are you effective? Can you shift gears if things don’t work? Can you relate to our students? Can you deliver content effectively, even if it’s not the content that might be appropriate at that moment?’ We cause some distraction in the classroom, because we want to know, ‘Are you focused on us or are you focused on the children?’ Because this is about children!
WACOAN: What does the future hold?
Grayson: I’ve been here since day one, negative two years — two years of planning — we’re on year 13. So what happens when the Mack truck hits me? We call it the ‘Mack truck effect’ around here. We have to have a team interplay and over-crossing so that regardless of what happens to anyone, there are people that know how to do parts of that job and can pick it up.
When I started this school, there was no one to keep the accounting. I did it all. I’m unlike many superintendents. I know all the codes. I know all the requirements. I know all the financial and fiscal regulations. I know all the special ed laws, state and federal. I know all of it. Because I had to learn it. Many times! Head on table, crying like a baby because I thought, ‘I can never get there.’
Now I have to walk out with that, and that’s another reason to have a team. I didn’t learn it because I wanted it. Nah! Let’s not be halo-istic here. I learned it because I didn’t have a choice.
My biggest driving force for the future is that we maintain leadership and a vision. How we facilitate that in procedures along the way is someone else’s job beyond me, so that it grows beyond what I think or what I can see or what I feel like. It should go with emerging education. So I have to build a team that can take it beyond me. And I’m happy for that to happen.
Good leaders know when to leave, not because they’re at the top, but they leave because it needs to grow beyond them. I am aware of that. So this school will remain strong, decade after decade, but it will not look like other schools.
WACOAN: In 20 years, it might not look like it does now.
Grayson: It may not. Hopefully! I realize there are some big changes when I walk out. It will emerge more with evolving education. I’m OK with that. When I leave, I will walk out the door. I’ll come back and do some gardening when no one is looking, but I will walk out the door, because you don’t stay and haunt and confuse. You trust who you put in.
One person can drive the ship in the wrong direction. Two people — one will convince the other. Three people? Oh, you’ve got a problem now! Because those three are going to banter back and forth and around to maintain that vision and mission.
In terms of changes in my professional life, this has been a real exciting and fun adventure. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done and the most fun I’ve ever had.