Natalie Young Williams can still remember the energy that engulfed her whenever her family reminded her she could achieve anything she wanted.

Williams felt empowered and knew she could reach her goal — whatever it was. This was second nature in a family filled with educators. They encouraged Williams to set her sights high. Together, they would find her path. Williams did that and became a lawyer before transitioning into her true calling: education. 

Williams is the executive director of the Tarrant To & Through Partnership, an organization that supports students through college and career advising, scholarships and mentorships to help them earn a degree or credential and enter the workforce. In her role, she’s trying to give students in Fort Worth and Tarrant County the same support she had growing up to help them find their own path to a successful life.

“It’s that energy that we want all Tarrant County students to have that truly the options and opportunities are endless,” Williams said.

The T3 Partnership announced Williams’ hiring in November. Williams came to the organization with more than 15 years of experience with K-12 schools, turning around more than 30 failing campuses across the nation and a history of helping college students succeed. She took over for Jay McCall, the interim executive director.

The T3 Partnership is still a startup. It started in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Mattie Parker, now the mayor of Fort Worth, led the organization as its founding CEO.

‘Grow the community’

Before Williams came on board to lead T3, Bill Coppola saw the organization heading in the right direction. Coppola is the president of Tarrant County College Southeast Campus and a T3 board member. T3 is still on an upward trajectory, but that isn’t Williams’s focus, he said.

“She really is there not to grow T3, but to grow the community. She understands the value to the community,” Coppola said.

Williams, though, is expected to shake off that startup sense and take the organization from Fort Worth ISD’s 14 traditional high schools to every school district in Tarrant County. Next school year, Crowley ISD is expected to join the T3 Partnership.

Only 23% of Tarrant County students will complete a postsecondary credential within six years of finishing high school, according to the T3 Partnership. More than 60% of jobs in the county require an associate degree or an industry-level certification. T3 estimates increasing that number could mean graduates earn millions more annually and millions of dollars in sales and property taxes to local governments.   

One of T3’s biggest goals is increasing the number of Tarrant County residents who have postsecondary credentials. In Tarrant County, 39% of adults have an associate degree or higher, according to the T3 Partnership. The organization wants to nearly double that number by 2030 to hit 60%, a statewide goal. 

About 65% of jobs in Tarrant County require some sort of postsecondary credential, according to data from the T3 Partnership.

The T3 Partnership has three areas it plans to measure its success:

  • Boost the number of high school graduates who meet the state standard for college, career and military readiness.
  • Increase the number of students enrolling in a postsecondary certification or degree program.
  • Grow the number of students earning a postsecondary credential within six years of graduating high school.

‘The path forward’

Natalie Young Williams, the executive director of the Tarrant To & Through Partnership, looks outside of a window in the Fort Worth Club building downtown. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

Williams first full role in education was as the headmaster of a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus part of the Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix. Williams had to bridge the achievement gap among different groups of students. To do that, Williams assembled a team of teachers who modeled what they wanted out of the children. 

Leading that campus taught Williams something she wouldn’t have learned anywhere else.

“The biggest lesson I learned was the power of committed, dedicated individuals and how when everyone is aligned in their belief and the possibilities of student success, then you will achieve success,” Williams said.

The school also showed Williams education was where she was meant to be. 

Her experience at Great Heart Academies propelled Williams to a position at EdisonLearning, a school-turnaround organization. Williams admitted this work was not easy by any means. However, it was rewarding and helped her grow.

As a data-driven person, Williams tried to figure out why a school was failing and reverse engineered a solution to tweak daily instruction. The approach was delicate, she said. 

“I wanted to make sure that I had the appropriate balance of the sense of urgency in ensuring that students excelled, while, at the same time, being able to show the principals and teachers the path forward,” Williams said. 

That sense of urgency was developed in her past life as a lawyer. Williams had to use that sense because she knew if students weren’t making the grade, their opportunities in life would dwindle. 

Even as she examined data, Williams made sure she was inspirational and intentional in how her team approached turnaround. At the end of the day, she had to make sure students were getting better. She centered her turnaround approach on students.

“When you start from that foundation, the turnaround work shifts a little bit from being daunting to more inspirational,” Williams said.

Her experience as a headmaster of a school and turning around campuses showed Williams what it takes to get students ready for college. However, her work at Paul Quinn College in Dallas showed what it takes for a college student to be successful.

“She really is there not to grow T3, but to grow the community.”

Bill Coppola, president of Tarrant County College Southeast Campus

Williams was the historically Black college’s chief of staff and director of institutional advancement. She helped connect students with job opportunities. The higher education institution was the nation’s first urban work college. Students are required to have a job on top of their classes.

“My job was to talk to all of the major partners, get them to see the value in hiring students and how their investment in the work college model truly leads to that pathway to … economic prosperity for students and their families,” Williams said.

‘You could feel that passion’

Frosty and Sarah Tempel are on the T3 Partnership’s board of directors. They remember Williams sticking out when the board searched for a permanent executive director. She had everything they were looking for: K-12 experience, a focus on outcomes and a history of connecting businesses with students.

But one quality stood out the most — the passion Williams has for education and helping people in her community.

“She brought a very interesting mix of being in the classroom on the administration side and then her legal and analytics training just completed the package,” Sarah Tempel said.

What struck Jeremy Smith, the president of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation and a T3 board member, was how Williams’s past work built on top of previous experiences. She established her base with a career in law, which included working with women and children, before pivoting to education and paving the path that led her to Fort Worth. 

It was as if Williams had built a pathway that led her directly to the T3 Partnership, Smith said.

“She’s worked at a higher ed institution, and knows firsthand what it takes, especially for first- generation students, to make it to and through whatever career path or credential that they’ve chosen,” Smith said.

A panel of education and business leaders discuss how to better develop the Tarrant County workforce before students graduate high school on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

David Nolet, a managing director at JPMorgan Chase, first met Williams on Zoom. JPMorgan is a financial supporter of the T3 Partnership. Since T3 launched in 2020, JPMorgan has donated more than $2 million to the organization. Nolet has worked closely with T3 during that time and knows its mission.

On that video call with Williams, Nolet listened to T3’s new executive director and realized it sounded as if she had been a part of the organization since day one. Her excitement was palpable, he recalled. And even through that screen, Nolet felt something.

“You could feel that passion, like she had been there for much longer yet we were probably a month or so in her working at the organization,” Nolet said. “This was a type of person that wanted to and had the skill set to take your organization to the next level.”

That goal sounds intimidating, but not for Williams. She embraces it because she can help put her mark on work she sees as a way to begin ending generational poverty in Tarrant County. Her work intersects with her personal passion of helping students and their families.

When Williams mentions students, she lights up. Every time she talks to students, the T3 executive director is overwhelmed with happiness because the organization has helped them realize their full potential, she said. 

In that moment, it’s like a lightbulb turning on for students when they realize T3 can help remove whatever barriers in their way of getting on the path to a successful life. Williams described these connections as joy moments where the student is smiling and so is she. 

When that happens, Williams recognizes she has helped recreate the energy she felt as a child realizing the sky was the limit.

“Doing that time and time again with students, not only is it just powerful, it’s just so fulfilling and rewarding when you know that you’re able to help a student navigate and find that pathway,” Williams said.

Jacob Sanchez is an education journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.