A college-going culture for Tacoma’s public schools

The News TribuneDecember 1, 2013 

TEACH 253 students huddle as they prepare an answer during a panel discussion at Pacific Lutheran University. The summer program was funded by a grant from Recruiting Washington Teachers and was designed to introduce underrepresented students to the teaching profession.

COURTESY OF TACOMA PUBLIC SCHOOLS

If Tacoma Public Schools doesn’t send a surge of its graduates to college in the next few years, it won’t be for lack of trying.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Carla Santorno – and in close partnership with University of Washington Tacoma Chancellor Debra Friedman – the district has launched what must be one of the country’s most aggressive efforts to steer disadvantaged kids toward higher education.

Santorno describes it as a push to create a “college-going culture” in the urban district – no small challenge when two-thirds of its students come from low-income families. Tacoma has historically struggled with complex social problems, a high dropout rate and a low percentage of students moving on to higher education.

“Higher education” here means anything that will put a student on a path toward adult success: A four- or two-year college, technical or vocational job training, apprenticeships or military enlistment. Students who do none of the above face a high likelihood of poverty. Some wind up in jail.

Poverty is often self-perpetuating. Many degree-less parents are unable to give their children a clear idea of how to reach or succeed in college. They may have no idea how much financial aid is available. Unlike parents who made it all the way, they don’t have the road map.

Early on, their children may start thinking of themselves as not cut out for higher education.

To nudge kids off the path to failure, Santorno and Friedman have created a partnership called “Pathways to Promise.” (Puyallup is also in on the deal.) In Tacoma, Pathways takes the form of a closely coordinated effort to raise students’ awareness of college opportunities and prepare them to get in.

Friedman is guaranteeing admission to any student who’s taken rigorous classes, earned at least a 2.7 GPA and cleared a modest bar on the SAT. She and other UWT administrators visit Tacoma classrooms to talk college. Students are presented with acceptance letters in front of their classmates. The university actively recruits eligible students; it doesn’t wait for them to randomly stumble upon the idea of attending.

For its part, the district has already offered all-day kindergarten to incoming students and intends to expand preschool at elementary schools. Elementary teachers lead their classes on tours of the UWT campus.

Next year, all qualified high school students will be automatically enrolled in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. They’ll have to opt out, not opt in – a policy that greatly expands participation in rigorous academics. The district pays student fees for the PSAT, SAT and other college-geared exams. These are just highlights of the multifaceted initiative.

Many school systems have adopted various combinations of these ideas. In wealthier districts, parents make a lot of it happen by themselves.

What is new, in Tacoma, is the breadth of the campaign to help disadvantaged kids overcome the low self-expectations and hidden barriers that can disqualify them long before they graduate from high school. If they graduate.

Even if the initiative is only partially successful, Tacoma students are likely to come out far ahead.

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