Finishing college, not just high school, is Tacoma group’s new mantra

Mount Tahoma High School student Jessa Marshall acknowledges a hard fact.

“Some days, I sit in front of the computer screen crying,” she says.

Filling out college application forms, writing admissions essays — all while balancing her senior year demands— is hard work. And her mom, who died in a traffic accident five years ago, isn’t there to help.

Those are the days Marshall calls on her teachers, school counselors and community mentors for support.

With help from caring adults, Marshall interned at the Tacoma Fire Department and plans a career in public safety. She’s also received her first college acceptance letter.

“Everything I do is for my mother,” she says.

Backers of the Graduate Tacoma initiative heard from Marshall and other determined Tacoma Public Schools students and recent graduates Friday at a downtown luncheon event focused on higher education.

When Graduate Tacoma launched in 2010, the goal was to boost Tacoma’s high school graduation rates out of the basement. At that time, only 55 percent of students finished high school in four years.

By 2014, the school district had recorded a 78 percent graduation rate — the highest since the state began tracking the numbers in 2003. The numbers were up at every Tacoma high school and across income and demographic lines.

Now, Graduate Tacoma supporters have set their eyes on a bigger prize: college completion for those TPS graduates.

Their goal is to increase the rate of college degree or post-high school certificate completion among Tacoma graduates from the most recent rate of 37 percent to 47 percent by 2020. Only about 25 percent of adults in Tacoma have a college degree, compared with 32 percent statewide, according to Graduate Tacoma.

The theme Friday was “Reaching Higher,” and it focused on supporting Tacoma students — more than two-thirds of whom come from low-income homes — beyond high school.

Speakers talked about the collaboration among Pierce County institutions of higher education, as well as the many partnerships forged between community organizations and schools.

More than 700 people packed the Hotel Murano Bicentennial Pavilion to hear stories from graduates who made it to college with help from mentors in Tacoma schools, local nonprofit agencies and Pierce County’s eight major colleges and universities.

Andrea Garcia, a Foss High School graduate who now studies at Tacoma Community College, said her mentor from Peace Community Center, Kelsey Fischer, helped her navigate high school. She remembers Fischer meeting her at school during lunch and texting her homework reminders.

Fischer also helped Garcia overcome barriers created because she was an undocumented student who at age 5 moved to the United States from Mexico with her parents. She is the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first to attend college.

Garcia and others pointed to a number of programs — College Success Foundation, Act Six, MDC Scholars College Bound, and others — that played a major role in their success against tough odds.

“I couldn’t have graduated, gone to college — or stood on this stage today — if it wasn’t for all the help I encountered,” Garcia said.