Rising graduation rates, plus other school statistics, are cause to celebrate, Tacoma foundation says

High school graduation rates in Tacoma Public Schools have topped the statewide average, if only by a hair, for the first time in recent history.

More Tacoma students are taking the SAT and heading for post-high school education, and more families are laying a solid foundation for their children by enrolling them in quality preschools.

Those signs of progress are among the statistics cited in a report released Thursday by the Foundation for Tacoma Students. It also showed a few downward trends, including a two-year drop in third-grade reading scores and a steady decline in SAT scores.

The data, much of it measuring five-year trends, comes from Tacoma Public Schools, Washington state and the College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance test.

Supporters of the foundation, which include civic, business and education leaders, say improvements are signs of a city that has come together behind its schools after years of divisiveness. The low points were a 2009 school bond election defeat, embarrassingly low graduation rates that dipped to 58 percent in 2010, and a 2011 teacher strike.

A turnaround was evident in 2013, when Tacoma voters approved a $500 million bond measure to fund new school construction and remodeling over the next decade. And in 2014, the four-year on-time graduation rates rose to 78 percent, one percentage point above the statewide average.

“Everyone is buying in, not just pointing fingers,” said foundation president Eric Wilson. He sees it as a sign that the community is willing to share responsibility for the fate of local kids.

One of the hallmarks of the foundation is coordinating efforts of the school district with private nonprofit groups and businesses. The foundation now boasts more than 150 community partners, including local colleges, employers and private philanthropy organizations.

The foundation hopes to boost what it terms “cradle-to-college and career” measurements even further with a new initiative announced Thursday.

It will offer grants to Tacoma teachers or schools that come up with projects that boost student achievement and that are tied to one of the foundation’s more-than-a-dozen indicator statistics. Teacher grants will range from $500 to $1,000, and schoolwide grants of up to $2,000 will be available.

“We want to inspire creative efforts by teachers and schools to improve student performance,” said foundation board chairman Kent Roberts.

The foundation also revealed Thursday the results of its efforts to put more laptop computers into the hands of Tacoma kids.

At an event last fall, the group put out a call for donations to help the district refurbish old school laptops that needed software upgrades, keyboard repairs and similar small fixes. Students from Foss High School and the school district Re-Engagement Center are working on the upgrade project now, and computers should be ready for students this spring.

In one day, the call for donations raised much of the $12,000 that will help upgrade some 1,200 computers.

“It’s a powerful example of how even small contributions can make a big difference for kids,” Roberts said.

While the foundation is generally pleased with the numbers, members acknowledge that work remains.

Like many urban areas around the nation, the foundation report shows Tacoma schools are still plagued by troubling gaps when education statistics are viewed by race or income.

One example: The 2014 four-year on-time graduation rate was 86 percent for Asian students and 82 percent for white students, but only 74 percent for black students and 67 percent for Hispanic students. Only 71 percent of poor students graduated on time last year, while 90 percent of their more affluent peers did.

Other concerns remain as well, such as a dip in the percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level. It had been as high as 70 percent in 2011, but it dropped from 65 percent in 2013 and to 62 percent in 2014.

“It’s one thing to climb to where we are,” Wilson said, “but it is going to get steeper and steeper to get to the top.”