Robin McDurham

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Chief Executive Officer of Transformation Waco

When five chronically underperforming Waco ISD schools were threatened with state takeover in 2017, Transformation Waco (TW) — a community partnership with a holistic approach to education — stepped in with a mission to turn the schools around. “The vision for the turn-around model was to optimize Waco’s resources with a community school strategy, which brings together academics, youth development, family and community engagement,” Chief Executive Officer Robin McDurham said, “with an infusion of wraparound health and social services to eliminate academic barriers to success.” Six years in, McDurham talks about the impact of TW, shares student and teacher stories and what the organization is planning next.

Describe the general state of public education in Waco. What are the challenges?
It is a tough time for public education across the city, state and nation. Districts are experiencing declining enrollment, staffing shortages and severe budget cuts. Transformation Waco’s board decided not to pursue a contract renewal with Waco ISD for school operations based on a projected $2.5 million budget deficit that would continue to grow yearly. We would have had cuts to every program and service that differentiated us.

So, what happened instead?
We opted to work with the district to preserve TW’s programming and services. We are grateful for WISD’s commitment to the work. Our strategic vision is to expand services to more Waco ISD schools, and our transition to a nonprofit service provider gives us the flexibility to tap into fundraising avenues that were off-limits to school systems.

What circumstances led to the creation of Transformation Waco?
TW was born out of necessity when five Waco ISD campuses [Alta Vista, Brook Avenue and J.H. Hines elementary schools, G.W. Carver and Indian Spring middle schools. Following a fire that destroyed G.W. Carver’s campus in July of 2021, it merged with Indian Spring and is now one campus under the Carver name.] risked a state takeover in 2017 for chronic underperformance. Waco ISD and Prosper Waco utilized Senate Bill 1882, which incentivized school districts facing takeovers to work with community partners to create in-district charters to turn around campuses.

What was the vision?
The vision for the turn-around model was to optimize Waco’s resources with a community school strategy, which brings together academics, youth development, family and community engagement with an infusion of wraparound health and social services to eliminate academic barriers to success.

What were some of the specific challenges faced by students in the four schools?
The demand for TW wraparound services from families and students has increased yearly. The number of students accessing essential services, including mental health support, vision care and after school programming, has also grown.

Talk about the need for student mental health services.
In McLennan County, the current wait time for outside mental health services is eight to 10 weeks. Students at TW campuses can immediately receive care through our LCSWs, who assess, diagnose and treat mental health needs. LCSWs are integrated into the school community and address behavioral disorders, addictions and emotional disturbances. Waco ISD wants this specialized mental health care to continue at our campuses but does not have the funding or staff to do it without Transformation Waco. Our families rest easier sending their children to school knowing that caring adults with training in mental health are available.

And eye care — something most of us take for granted.
Before TW, only 3 to 5% of our students had access to an optometrist following a school-based vision screening, which recommended further evaluation. With The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Vision Center, we bridge that divide with a pediatric optometrist who provides eye exams and glasses to pre-K to 12th-grade Waco ISD students. Transformation Waco funds and operates the clinic, which opened in October 2019. A clinic assistant drives students to all appointments to have exams during school hours. Following its reopening after COVID-19 in 2021, the center has provided 525 exams and 485 pairs of glasses. As demand across the district increases, we’re scheduling more students than ever and aim to accommodate new and returning patients by expanding our services.

What have studies shown about the need for childcare services, specifically here in our area?
In its May 2021 report “Are the Children Well?”, the United Way of McLennan County identified the types of childcare used in McLennan County, and after school programs came in at the bottom at 2% compared to 70% for parent/family member/friend watching children at home. Many TW parents have shared that they have no other childcare options and cannot afford alternatives even if they are available.

So, the parents are taking advantage of the opportunity — it’s working.
Parents can depend on our AfterSchool Academies to ensure their children are cared for, eliminating the need for them to miss work or arrange for family members to watch their kids. Over 250 students attend TW after school programs, receiving high-impact tutoring, homework assistance, dinner and various enrichment programs from community partners. We know after school students perform better academically, as 81% of enrollees met their growth targets last year.

Explain how TW works within Waco ISD.
Since June 2018, The Transformation Zone has worked as an independent charter network of schools. TW has a separate board of directors and superintendent/CEO. TW is responsible for the school’s daily operations, including hiring and supervising staff, budgets and curriculum development. We pay Waco ISD for HR, special education and security services. Waco ISD is also responsible for the maintenance of the buildings, child nutrition and transportation.

The heart and the dedication of educators who want to serve this program, test students — they’ve got to be next level.
We had an exciting week in TW because we delivered big checks to teachers who qualified for the Texas Teacher Incentive Allotment. Many of the 23 teachers stood out because they are the names associated with embracing innovative practices. They are teachers who rest when their students are successful. They build authentic relationships with their students and are attentive to their needs.

Can you give an example of a teacher who exemplifies that?
One of our first-year teachers, Ms. Jones at Alta Vista, had a mid-year transfer student who needed help adjusting to the new school and struggled to focus on classwork. The day started with stress for this student, as leaving his mother each morning was particularly traumatic. Ms. Jones committed to being at the front of the school every morning, rain or shine, to greet this student, facilitate a happy transition and make sure the student is set up for success in his school day.

In addition to teachers, there must be lots of support staff who have to buy in as well.
When the Zone began, our Family Support Specialists (FSSs) formed the wraparound services’ core to build relationships with families, especially those who struggled within the school system, either themselves or their children. This work led to not only providing wraparound services but also, during the pandemic, opening doors to serving families in a broader sense. Many of our families remember those times, and their relationships with the FSSs have strengthened. Robin Newman, our FSS at J.H. Hines, has families who return long after they leave the halls of J.H. Hines to share their progress and celebrate their stories. These relationships are the key to success for our families.

TW promotes a holistic approach to education. How is that achieved?
We significantly impact student achievement and well-being through our coordination of care (COC) process. It is not a one-size-fits-all strategy but a case management system to create individualized and personalized care plans responsive to student’s needs and circumstances. Every TW campus has a COC team that assesses a student’s holistic needs and provides necessary resources. TW provides wraparound services that were previously limited or unavailable. Services include mental health support with on-campus licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), early childhood programs for parents and children from birth to 3 years old, parent universities and low or no-cost afterschool programming and tutoring. We provide on-campus telehealth care for physical and behavioral health and complete vision services, from exams with a pediatric optometrist to delivery of glasses.

Again, things so many of us take for granted. Are there examples of students who have been directly impacted?
We are so fortunate to have a pediatric optometrist at our vision center. We have many stories about children reporting that they can see individual leaves in their trees for the first time. One teacher told me that she had a student sitting in front of the class repeatedly sharpening his pencil. When she started digging to find out why he was out of his seat so much, she discovered that the child could not read the whiteboard from his desk, so he would walk up, sharpen his pencil and memorize what he could see on the whiteboard until the next time he was up.

Stories like that really illustrate the power educators have in students’ lives.
A parent called us recently because they moved to a neighboring district. Her child was monitored in our coordination of care process, and when the parent went to register her child, she requested services from the school’s licensed clinical social worker. She had no idea that every school didn’t offer our systems and support and became very concerned about the interruption in her child’s life. Waco is identified as an underserved community with a shortage of mental health services, and it can take up to 10 weeks to secure resources from licensed individuals. Students at TW campuses can immediately receive care through our LCSWs.

How is TW financed?
Transformation Waco is shifting from a $20 million school operations budget to a projected nonprofit service provider’s budget of approximately $1.9 million. The nonprofit’s budget includes a $2.5 million Department of Education grant and TW’s reserve funds, estimated at $650,000 for campus-based staff.

Who are some of the community partners that are helping make a difference?
We plan to grow our budget by pursuing grant funding and donations from individuals and organizations. Additionally, we have obtained childcare licensing for TW afterschool programs. We are registering our families for Child Care Services (CCS), which will reimburse the nonprofit for registered families and ensure a stable funding stream. We are also on track to establish Medicaid billing for the vision center and licensed clinical social workers.

How does TW measure its success?
We use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) Growth assessment in math and reading scores for academics. The MAP test is given nationally to over 6.7 million students at the school year’s beginning, middle and end. The national average of students meeting their annual growth target is 50%, and in 2022-23, 52% of TW students met both math and reading targets. Students who receive wraparound services have unprecedented growth.
Of the 1,200 students who received one or more wraparound services — more than 60% of our enrollment — 73% met an annual MAP target; 65% recovered at least one day or more of attendance and met a MAP target; 77% who received services from a community school specialist met a MAP target; 71% who received intensive intervention from a licensed clinical social worker met a MAP target; and 81% who attended AfterSchool Academies met a MAP growth target.

Attendance seems to be a big issue in all schools today, especially since the pandemic.
We track the number of days students are in school and chronic absenteeism, which is missing more than 10% of the required school year. Wraparound services helped us reduce students’ chronic absenteeism last year by 13 points, from 35% to 22% — a 37% reduction. All four TW schools improved their chronic absenteeism. The holistic support we provide to students and families through direct services and community partnerships is the approach national attendance experts say is needed to tackle chronic absenteeism.

And I’m sure having family buy-in is key.
Yes. We also measure success by seeing families become more engaged in their children’s educational journey. We encourage families to participate in school activities, attend parent-teacher meetings and be attentive to their children’s academic goals. We work on building stronger connections between school and home by encouraging open communication between teachers and families. These efforts create a supportive, collaborative environment that enhances student learning and well-being.

Of course, at the end of the day, it’s all about the students. How is the selection of TW board members important in carrying out the vision?
Having school board members who are also parents adds a crucial layer of understanding to the decision-making process. Parents on the board bring firsthand knowledge of our community’s challenges, expectations and aspirations. They intimately understand the daily experiences of students, parents and teachers. This unique perspective helps shape policies and initiatives to ensure TW is a more inclusive and responsive learning environment for kids.

What will Transformation Waco’s function/focus be as the control of the schools reverts to WISD this summer?
Transformation Waco will remain focused on meeting students’ basic and mental health needs, enabling them to stay in school longer for brighter futures. Our new contract with WISD allows for the continuation of wraparound services including afterschool programs, eye exams and glasses through The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Vision Center, licensed clinical social workers for mental health support, telehealth services with Waco Family Medicine, legal support from Greater Waco Legal Services, the early childhood program at Inspiración, the School Readiness Initiative at Estella Maxey (Place Apartments), Parent Universities with Grassroots Community Development and a host of other community-partner programs.

Are you planning to expand services to other Waco schools?
Our strategic vision is to expand services to more Waco ISD schools, and our transition to a nonprofit service provider gives us the flexibility to tap into fundraising avenues that were off-limits to school systems. We can explore a broader range of funding, which means we can do even more to support and grow our wraparound services.