Tacoma schools earn good marks for graduation

From the editorial board

Tacoma School Superintendent Carla Santorno
Tacoma School Superintendent Carla Santorno

What a difference five years makes.

In 2010, only 55 percent of Tacoma students were graduating high school. USA Today referred to schools with such low rates as “dropout factories.” Sadly, they included every comprehensive high school in Tacoma.

Tacoma school and community leaders looked at that as a challenge and set a goal that some might have thought overly ambitious for an urban district with a large percentage of low-income students: achieving an 85 percent graduation rate by 2020.

It’s only 2015, and Tacoma schools are closing in on the target. Superintendent Carla Santorno announced last week that the Class of 2015’s four-year graduation rate was 82.6 percent, up from 78.3 in 2014. It was the fifth consecutive year the rate rose.

What makes those number look even better is how much improvement there was in rates for low-income students (from 55 percent in 2012 to 76.8 in 2015) and students of color.

In the past three years, for instance, black students have improved from 67 to 81 percent, Hispanics from 57 to 80 percent and Pacific Islanders from 54 to 80 percent. The gap between minority and white graduation rates (84 percent) has closed significantly. Black and Hispanic students at Wilson and Lincoln high schools actually graduated at higher rates than white students. And special ed students’ rate rose from 45.9 in 2013 to 59.7 in 2015.

The graduation rate improvements are worth celebrating — and looking at how the district got there. In a visit with the editorial board, Santorno and Tacoma School Board member Scott Heinze outlined a strategy that wraps students in support and emphasizes a college-going culture.

The school day and school year were extended. A ninth-grade “warning system” was instituted to intervene quickly with help when a student failed a class. Partnerships with local colleges and community groups provided mentors, tutors and support as basic as meals, clothes and school supplies.

One idea that has gotten traction with kids is the district’s emphasis on verifiable success. It’s not enough for students to say they want to go to college, hope to get into an apprenticeship program or plan to join the military. To qualify as attaining success, the student must show an acceptance letter. That policy has spurred many students to go the extra step toward goals that might have once seemed unattainable.

Getting to 85 percent now looks achievable. But to their credit, district leaders say that’s not good enough. “We want 100 percent of kids in Tacoma to graduate,” Heinze said.

The district also recognizes it has work to do with addressing higher discipline rates for students of color. Santorno plans to visit schools this spring to talk about it with principals.

This is all good news. The district seems to be on the right track — away from that lousy “dropout factory” label.