If Transformation Waco CEO Robin McDurham had to grade the in-district charter partnership with the Waco Independent School District’s first year of operation, she would give it a B.

While the five Transformation Waco schools have seen successes in the past year, the state rated two of those schools as failing last week, when it released grades of schools and districts, largely based on standardized test scores.

The five-school charter system created under the authority of a 2017 law, Senate Bill 1882, Transformation Waco is the first partnership of its kind in the state, created to prevent the closure of five Waco ISD schools that failed state accountability ratings for five consecutive years. It just completed its first year in a three-year contract with Waco ISD to improve student success.

“We’ve found our place,” McDurham said. “We know ways that we can make a difference. We’ve had a glimpse of how to use our resources to move the needle, and I think we have a better, stronger sense of how to move forward.”

Senate Bill 1882 dedicates additional funding to school districts that partner with charter schools, nonprofits, higher education institutes, governmental entities or out-of-state school operators to improve student outcomes, according to the state’s website on the law, txpartnerships.org. Schools rated as failing that join one of the partnerships are eligible to receive a two-year reprieve from state penalties, which can include closure or replacement of the district’s school board.

The Waco ISD school board voted in January 2018 to create the in-district charter system with nonprofit Prosper Waco, which spun off a separate organization, Transformation Waco. The decision followed a notice from the Texas Education Agency at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year that the state would intervene if the district’s chronically underperforming schools did not improve. The two partners agreed to appoint McDurham, then Waco ISD’s assistant superintendent of student services and family engagement, as the charter’s CEO, and former Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. as its board president.

Transformation Waco got a $5 million federal two-year implementation grant, plus $3.7 million in state revenue last year to operate the five schools in the partnership: Alta Vista Elementary, Brook Avenue Elementary, J.H. Hines Elementary, G.W. Carver Middle and Indian Spring Middle.

Under the state’s new school finance reform law, which advanced as House Bill 3, Transformation Waco expects to receive less state revenue this year, about $2 million, McDurham said.

The in-district charter has relied mostly on the $5 million grant that is being rolled out over two years to fund innovative initiatives to improve student outcomes, including a spring break academy to help certain students improve their state standardized test scores and the hiring of family support specialists for every campus.

Duncan said McDurham and her team spent the past year figuring out how improve student achievement and parental and community engagement, key factors to getting those five schools to pass state standards.

“It’s hard when you only have two years to meet those accountability standards because the things we’re doing are long-lasting,” he said. “It’s got to be a sustained focus on that achievement, and that’s what we’re building into the classroom.”

Other initiatives created by Transformation Waco include mentoring programs, like The Hidden Figures Project. The project provides middle school girls with mentors, a book study and experience in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. McDurham said the mentoring programs created about 600 new mentoring relationships in the first year.

“They are targeted toward improving reading, while also building key relationships with caring adults,” she said. “I think that social services within schools can sometimes miss the boat because they are not geared toward removing barriers to academic success.”

Indian Spring eighth grader Cassandra Garcia participates in The Hidden Figures Project and said the mentors in the program have helped provide her with more resources and to guide her in her classwork when she gets lost. Her mother, Dinorah Casales, agreed, adding that she has seen more effort from teachers in Transformation Waco to help her daughter succeed.

Marisol Ramos said her daughter, Vianey Ramos, another eighth grader at Indian Spring, has also gotten support from her teachers, especially her theater teacher, who made sure to invite Vianey to participate in additional activities she might not have known about otherwise.

Moreover, Transformation Waco has used its funding to provide students with free eye exams and corrective lenses if they need them, leveraging community partnerships with organizations including the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation to do so. Duncan said the partnership also is working on getting students access to free clinical care at school as part of Transformation Waco’s efforts to address factors outside the classroom that affect students in the classroom.

“That’s the hand we’re dealt, but we think that the social determinants of education are as important as the academic inputs,” he said. “We’ve tried to do this for years, just dealing with it in the classroom, and our best efforts get thwarted at home or somewhere else. If we’re not looking at it holistically, we don’t think we can make the needle moves that we need to.”

McDurham said every education system has social challenges that affect the work being done in the classroom but that Transformation Waco is working to make sure its outside challenges do not become barriers to academic success.

Nonetheless, there are still problems in the classroom that hinder students’ success. A big issue Transformation Waco schools face is high rates of teacher turnover, with an average annual turnover rate of 40%. Meanwhile, Waco ISD’s teacher turnover rate is about 26%, and the state’s is 16%, McDurham said.

So, the zone created an alternative certification program to combat teacher turnover, with a cohort of 16 new teachers who have been training all summer for the classroom. Those teachers will eventually earn their master’s degree on Transformation Waco’s dime as part of the program, and they made a five-year commitment to teach in Transformation Waco.

A third of the J.H. Hines staff this school year will be teachers from the new program. J.H. Hines, along with G.W. Carver, saw its whole administrative team and almost half its teaching staff replaced last year, McDurham said. Other Transformation Waco schools did not see such drastic staffing changes.

When state accountability ratings were released Thursday, Hines and Carver both received an F. Hines and Carver saw their overall scores decline 18 and 20 points, respectively. The other three Transformation Waco schools saw at least some improvement. Alta Vista Elementary School and Indian Spring Middle School both saw their overall scores increase by one point and received C grades. Brook Avenue Elementary, which had been rated “improvement required” — the equivalent of an F last year — increased its overall score by 20 points and received a C this year.

All schools except Brook Avenue met state standards for the 2017-18 school year.

Despite the losses at Hines and Carver, Transformation Waco currently has no chronically low-performing schools, by the state’s standards, so the two-year break from accountability standards has been extended another year, McDurham said. But next year, the charter will need all schools to pass to fulfill its contract with Waco ISD.

The contract includes other goals that must be met, including teacher satisfaction, parent satisfaction and an attendance rate of at least 97% at every school by 2020. The contract ends June 15, 2021, unless both Transformation Waco and Waco ISD agree to extend the contract.

“It’s way too soon to say where we’ll be two more years from now in terms of the district’s desire and the (transformation) zone’s desire to keep moving forward, but if there’s additional funding and it benefits both organizations, I think that’s something we weren’t expecting,” McDurham said. “I think we were expecting get-in, get-out.”

Under Senate Bill 1882, Transformation Waco could exist and receive all eligible benefits of the partnership, including additional state money, for up to 10 years, according to txpartnerships.org. A public hearing must be held either to extend or terminate the partnership.

Potentially, Waco ISD could terminate the contract with Transformation Waco or remove one or more of the schools from the charter if any of the five schools fail to meet the contract’s standards for three or more consecutive years. On the other hand, other Waco ISD schools can be added to the charter if Waco ISD and Transformation Waco agree.

McDurham said it is possible that at the end of the three-year contract, it will be “mission-accomplished” and the lessons learned through the partnership could be refined and spread throughout the district.

“That’s really our goal is to be able to pilot these initiatives and show success and then make them available to the district,” Duncan said.

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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