A 2007 research report from Johns Hopkins University dropped an academic bomb in Tacoma education circles.
The report labeled all five of Tacoma’s comprehensive public high schools “dropout factories,” where no more than 60 percent of students who enrolled as freshmen were making it to graduation by senior year.
Tacoma Public Schools officials disputed the data. Since then, much has changed, including more uniform graduation rate reporting systems that make tracking the fate of individual students and entire systems more reliable.
But the alarm bell rung with that 2007 report has continued to resonate, and this year saw the birth of a citywide effort to boost graduation rates. It’s called Graduate Tacoma, sponsored by the nonprofit Foundation for Tacoma Students.
“I am living it now, as I watch students cross the stage at graduation,” Superintendent Carla Santorno told a City Club gathering Wednesday night, in the middle of a busy week of commencement ceremonies. “There is no one strategy, no one way to get students to graduation.”
Graduate Tacoma is working on strategies such as recruiting volunteers to help mentor and tutor students, and asking businesses to offer internships. This summer, it will launch Summer Learning Tacoma, an online guide to summer opportunities for kids.
Panelists Wednesday emphasized that they want to keep the Graduate Tacoma movement in the public eye.
Santorno and other speakers noted that Tacoma students come to school with varying levels of support — and baggage — from home. Santorno said it’s the school district’s moral obligation to meet students where they are.
And that support must begin before high school, she said.
Santorno announced one new initiative that’s in its infancy. The district is seeking grant funding to help expand a partnership between it and the Tacoma Housing Authority.
The program, which has attracted national attention, began as an experiment in 2011. It offered homeless families low-cost rent, along with job training, child care, parenting classes and more – as long as families promised to keep their children at McCarver Elementary School, on Tacoma’s Hilltop, through fifth grade.
Families also had to take an active role in their children’s education, attending school activities and meeting with teachers. The goal is to support stability at home that would help kids blossom at school.
“Reading scores are up at McCarver for those families,” Santorno said. “We want to replicate that at other high-poverty schools around the city.”
Graduation rates are also climbing. Citywide, the rate was just more than 70 percent for the class of 2013. That’s closer to the goal set by the school board, which wants to boost graduation rates to at least 87 percent by 2020.
Tacoma is entering the homestretch of high school graduation week. School of the Arts and the Science and Math Institute held their ceremonies earlier this week; Foss and Stadium have theirs Friday at the Tacoma Dome; Lincoln, Wilson and Mount Tahoma follow on Saturday; and Oakland Alternative High School closes things out Monday.