We must work together to get kids through school

June 3, 2014 

Sure signs of spring: blooming flowers at Point Defiance Park, the Rainiers cracking bats at Cheney Stadium, and caps and gowns at the Tacoma Dome.

All of Tacoma joins in congratulating the Class of 2014 and their families this week as they cross the stage to accept their diplomas. At the same time, we must remain focused on reaching the 30 percent of students who won’t be marching with their classmates.

Why? Because the future success of Tacoma depends on our long-term commitment to education as a civic priority.

Here’s the reality. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, students who drop out of high school earn less than a living wage. On average, students without a high school diploma earn $20,000 per year. With a high school diploma, they earn $30,000. And with a bachelor’s degree they earn more than $56,000. Graduating from high school college-ready is the crucial first step to success after high school.

Equally important for Tacoma is that graduation rates affect our ability to attract families looking to buy homes, to have a well-educated workforce, to grow and attract businesses that pay family wages, and overall prosperity.

Jobs follow talent. We need to help our K-12 students thrive so they are ready to continue their education in technical schools, the trades, community colleges or universities for the economic and social benefit of each individual and our community as a whole.

It was recently reported that American high school students are graduating at a record rate of 80 percent since 2012.

Progress is underway here in Tacoma too. For the fourth year in a row, graduation rates have climbed. In 2010, our graduation rate was an unacceptable 55 percent, and USA Today called Tacoma high schools drop-out factories. By 2011, it rose to 62 percent, then to 68 percent by 2012 and up to 70 percent in 2013.

These are encouraging trends, but gaps persist between students. Nearly two-thirds of Tacoma high school students receive free or reduced lunch – an indicator of poverty. Students not in poverty graduated at a rate of 85 percent, but only 61 percent of students in poverty graduated in 2013 – up 2 percent from the year before.

This tells us that the school district alone, cannot solve our challenges in education. It requires a community-wide effort.

The Foundation for Tacoma Students works with hundreds of parents, educators, community organizations and stakeholders to create a bold goal to Graduate Tacoma!

That shared community goal is: “By the Class of 2020, we will increase by 50 percent both the graduation rate of Tacoma Public Schools students and those who complete a college degree or technical certificate. Success will require measuring and closing gaps in access, opportunities and achievement for all students from cradle to college to career.”

In honor of our graduating seniors, please join the Graduate Tacoma! movement today. Just go to GraduateTacoma.org and click “Join” to add your name to this shared community goal.

Parents, educators, business, labor, philanthropy, higher education and faith communities have come together to align community resources and identify key student indictors of success. These milestones include participation in high quality pre-school, third-grade literacy, strong transitions to middle and high school, a solid post-high school plan and a culture of high expectations for all students. Together, these indicators will increase boost academic achievement for every child.

It is our responsibility as individuals and organizations to act now. Donate to and volunteer with local organizations that close the gaps in student access, opportunity and achievement.

Everyone can help. Read to students at your neighborhood school. Mentor kids in youth programs. Provide real-life internship opportunities and summer jobs.

It’s a simple idea. No one entity and no one group can solve the challenges facing our schools and students. It takes all of us working together to make lasting changes. Together, we will Graduate Tacoma and realize our full potential as a city.

Jim Shoemake, former superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, is chairman of the Foundation for Tacoma Students. Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland is a board member of the foundation.

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