Coalition wants Tacoma School Board to do more about racial disparities

In a photograph shot with a slow shutter speed, students are shown traveling a hallway at Lincoln High School in Tacoma on Dec. 2.
In a photograph shot with a slow shutter speed, students are shown traveling a hallway at Lincoln High School in Tacoma on Dec. 2.

For months, a coalition of Tacoma education advocates has prodded the Tacoma School Board to sharpen its focus on one of the thorniest issues in public education: the persistent gap between the educational success of students from different racial groups.

As a group, Asian and white students generally fare better than black, brown and other students of color on a variety of measures — everything from test scores to graduation rates, grades to discipline rates. It’s true not only in Tacoma, but in school districts across the state and nation.

School officials here say they’re not ducking the issues, and they point with pride to recent progress, including increased graduation rates and college acceptance rates among racial minority kids, and more diversity in high-rigor high school courses.

On Thursday, Tacoma Public Schools announced 2015 graduation rates, noting that the numbers were up for every racial demographic but one. But officials acknowledge that discipline rates are disproportionately high for black students, and they say they’ve introduced initiatives to combat that inequity.

The five-year-old Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition says that while those results are laudable, what’s lacking is a coordinated plan to keep them coming.

“What’s the plan? That’s the biggest question we have,” says Lucas Smiraldo, executive director of Vibrant Schools, which includes organizations and individuals from the city’s African American, Latino, Asian and other communities of color.

He said anecdotal evidence of inequities in Tacoma has been piling up for decades.

“The stories form a picture that causes us to look deeper into why an achievement gap has persisted for over 40 years in the Tacoma schools, along with many other districts,” Smiraldo told the school board.

Superintendent Carla Santorno said the district has a strategic plan with four main goals: academic excellence, partnership with the community, early learning and school safety.

“Our philosophy is that if you work to improve access for all students, if you improve and personalize instruction so it meets the needs of individual kids, if you learn the strengths and weaknesses of students, then you are working to confront problems of racial inequity,” Santorno said.

We are asking (the board) to dive into racial disparities at a deeper level.

Liesl Santkuyl, Vibrant Schools Tacoma Coalition

Santorno lists one example. Historically, Advanced Placement (AP) and other challenging high school courses attracted white and Asian students, but black and Hispanic students often shied away. One of the barriers was that enrollment was voluntary.

“It’s not good enough to say AP classes are open to everybody,” Santorno said. “You have to put something in force to get African American, Latino and other students of color in those classes.”

In June 2013, the school board adopted an academic acceleration policy. Students who score well on state tests are automatically enrolled in advanced classes. Instead of opting in to AP and other high-rigor courses, students have to opt out — with parent permission. The policy went into effect in the fall of 2014.

The result? The percentage of black high school students enrolled in challenging courses where they could earn college credit more than doubled from the 2012-13 school year to the current year. During the same time span, the percentage of Native American kids taking those classes jumped from 18 percent to more than 48 percent.

Smiraldo said Vibrant Schools supported the acceleration policy. But he said he’d now like to see data on retention and course completion among minority kids in those advanced classes.

Santorno says the district is supporting students, and it’s also talking to parents and explaining why it’s important for their children to be in advanced classes.

Smiraldo and others from Vibrant Schools emphasize that they want to work with school leaders. As a starting point, they’ve asked for a school board study session on equity issues.

“We are asking (the board) to dive into racial disparities at a deeper level,” said Liesl Santkuyl, the Tacoma director of Stand for Children and a member of Vibrant Schools.

They’d like to see a specific written plan, with numeric goals, addressing variances in academic achievement and discipline for students of color. They suggest a draft plan for Tacoma be circulated for public comment before a final plan is adopted.

And they don’t want the plan to gather dust. They want it to become part of the school board’s road map for doing business.

I care about kids of color. That’s why I’m here.

Carla Santorno, Tacoma school superintendent

“Data should be reported on a regular basis, so that the board and the community can see what is happening,” said Sally Perkins, a member of Vibrant Schools who tutors students through the Hilltop Scholars program. “It ought to be somebody’s job to not only bring the numbers (to the board), but to interpret them and say what they think the numbers mean.”

Perkins has been analyzing Tacoma test scores, combing through 10 years of scores for third-graders.

“The other clear message from the data as I look at it is that no matter what the test instrument — WASL, MSP, and now the Smarter Balanced — the gap between white and students of color persists at about 20 points for African American students and 15-20 points for Latino students,” Perkins said.

Scott Heinze, who just completed a year as president of the Tacoma School Board, said it’s easy to cherry-pick individual data points that reveal problems. But he said that means other outcomes are overlooked.

He points to the increase in Tacoma students accepted to college and other post-high school programs. In 2013, about 37 percent of the city’s black students were accepted. By 2015, the figure rose to just over 61 percent. For Native Americans, it went from 38 percent to 76 percent.

The achievement gap for high school graduation also appears to be closing. In 2015, officials point out that Wilson and Lincoln high schools have reversed the trend: Black and Hispanic students graduated at higher rates than white students.

Nearly 95 percent of black Lincoln students and 84 percent of Hispanic students graduated this year, while 75 percent of white students did. At Wilson, 100 percent of black students and nearly 97 percent of Hispanic students graduated, compared to nearly 92 percent of white students.

(White students make up a quarter of the enrollment at Lincoln, black students another quarter and Hispanic students 23 percent. At Wilson, 63 percent of the student body is white, 16 percent is black and 9 percent Hispanic.)

To this point, discipline has been a harder problem to solve. In Tacoma, as in many districts, students of color are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers. Santorno calls it a complex issue.

Social scientists and education researchers have begun to document a link between early school discipline and later involvement with the criminal justice system — a link that’s referred to as the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

The Seattle School District this year decided to end out-of-school suspensions for elementary school kids with nonviolent behaviors. In Tacoma, school leaders have turned to a partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma called the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative Launched in the 2013-14 school year. It’s based on the theory that kids respond better to reinforcement of good behavior than they do to punishment.

Although there’s been spotty progress with some student racial and ethnic groups, overall, discipline rates for most students of color in Tacoma remain stubbornly high. But elsewhere, such systems have shown results.

School to prison pipeline — the name researchers assign to the link between kids who are in trouble in school, and later, with the law

Santorno said Tacoma is able to pinpoint data on discipline incidents, for example, where and when students are getting into trouble. She said that this spring she plans to visit each of Tacoma’s middle and high schools to review discipline data with principals.

Smiraldo said the school district has gotten better in recent years about giving the public access to data, and in making concrete goal-driven plans. “But there is still a lot to be done,” he added.

Heinze said the board has been listening to a variety of groups and individuals, including Vibrant Schools, as it prepares to update its strategic plan in the coming year. He said one message the board is hearing from the community is that the district should continue its focus on increasing graduation rates. He also said parents are concerned about an uptick in youth violence.

Santorno said she’s disappointed that Vibrant Schools doesn’t see more of the work the district is already doing.

“I care about kids of color,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”

She agrees that the pace of change can seem slow.

“But we will keep working,” she added.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

More information

To see more data on Tacoma students, go to the Tacoma Public Schools webpage. Click on “About” and then click on “Benchmarks.”