Dear Partners & Friends,
As Holly shared in her gracious letter earlier this week, the baton has been passed and I will officially resign as Founding President of the Foundation at the end of this month. I’m writing today to express gratitude to you and so many across this community who have helped build and strengthen the Graduate Tacoma movement since the beginning. Please forgive the length, but the list of thanks could go on for chapters.
It’s hard to believe it’s back-to-school for the graduating Class of 2020! When the Foundation began in 2010, these students were just entering the third grade.
We all recall Tacoma schools were labeled “drop out factories” by USA Today and the 58% graduation rate. Tacoma came together in an unprecedented way. We started by having conversations in every neighborhood and across every sector of Tacoma – with parents and educators, youth and community service, early learning and higher education, business and labor, civic and philanthropy, faith communities and local government.
More than 100 community organizations and citizens helped build a shared vision for students with the Foundation for Tacoma Students and Tacoma 360. Together, community partners set a bold goal for 2020 and established the student and community indicators to track progress.
Community-Built Goal: By the Class of 2020, WE WILL increase by 50% both graduation rate of Tacoma Public Schools students and those who complete a college degree or technical certificate. Success will require closing gaps in access, opportunities and achievement of all students from cradle to career.
Every year since, the graduation rate has increased to a record high 89.6% in 2018, surpassing the state average for the fourth year in a row. There’s been a lot of attention around graduation progress, but what Tacoma understood from the beginning and stated explicitly in our goal was, “Success will require closing gaps in access, opportunities and achievement for all students.” Equity has been at the center of this movement because our partners put it there and have kept it there. Back in 2010, the graduation gaps between white students and students of color were 20-30 points and today the graduation gaps have closed to 2 or 3 points.
Since 2010, nearly 4,000 more students have graduated from Tacoma high schools than if the rates had remained stuck at the 2010 levels. For perspective, that’s the equivalent to the entire student populations of two of Tacoma’s largest high schools.
While graduation rates have climbed and some gaps have closed, we haven’t had the same success with postsecondary completion, and the progress hasn’t been as steady or significant as with other student indicators. But the support and engagement of this community has been unwavering. Today, the Graduate Tacoma movement is more than 270 community partners strong and still growing.
A lot of people from around the state and country started to ask what’s in Tacoma’s secret sauce? While we can debate the dozens of special ingredients, there’s no doubt the chef has made all the difference.
Superintendent Carla Santorno understood that parents and educators are critical to student success, but that community is a critical third component to reach every student and support the whole child. Her hallmark has been authentic partnership and a transparency that was unapologetic about “what gets measured, gets done.” Special thanks also to Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia for his candor as a critical friend — reminding us that behind every percentage point are the faces of individual students. Thank you also to Amanda Scott Thomas, TPS Director of Community Partnership, for her passionate commitment to community engagement, for cutting to the chase and keeping it real, and for constantly building alignment between the district and the Graduate Tacoma movement.
Moving a system responsible for the education of more than 30,000 students in a certain direction isn’t easy. So many districts face the burden of turnover and constant shifts in direction. Superintendent Santorno’s leadership and commitment to equity has been steadfast. Every day she personalizes what student success in Tacoma means in a way we can all understand. Carla and this community helped build a culture of high expectations for every child, regardless of background. To Carla and her team and the thousands of educators who have dedicated their lives to Tacoma students, thank you. Working with you has been one of the great privileges of my career. A sincere thanks also to the Tacoma School Board for setting their own bold 2020 goal and for aligning student benchmarks, and building a culture of shared accountability.
I also want to extend my gratitude to the current and former board members of the Foundation for Tacoma Students. Their personal support and their commitment to our students and to this community has been inspiring. The Board has included an incredibly devoted team of civic leaders, education voices, and citizen activists who have challenged assumptions, kept students at the center, and always asked, “What do our community partners think?”
Special thanks to our founding Board Chair Jim Shoemake for helping the Foundation settle on an untested path of collective impact to bring our community together in the earlier years. Also to Brad Cheney who brought local philanthropy and civic leadership together in an unprecedented way and helped us build a board with sustained commitment. Thank you to former Chair Kent Roberts who helped us build a strategic framework as we moved beyond start up to sustainability. We miss former Chair Dan Barkley who was always a voice for community inclusion and his legacy lives on in the voices of parents, educators, and community who convene almost daily in the The Barkley Room at the Foundation office. And to our current Chair Holly Bamford Hunt, thank you for your kindness and commitment to the youngest voices in our community and for your tireless leadership through the Foundation’s period of growth and transition.
Special thanks to Mayor Victoria Woodards, who serves on our board, and the City Council for supporting the community-wide partnership. Also, thank you to the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation who provided critical back office support for FFTS in the early years; and to both Rose Lincoln Hamilton and Kathi Littman who have served on our Board and provided thought partnership since the beginning. Also thank you to David Fischer and Tacoma Arts Live who provided our first office and community convening space.
I want to offer a heartfelt thanks to the staff of the Foundation for Tacoma Students, from the start up years with Julia Garnett and Courtney Ydstie to the incredible team today led by Tafona Ervin and those who served in between. I have learned so much from each of you and been inspired by your willingness to challenge assumptions and keep kids and community voice at the center of all we do. A special thanks to Tafona for her leadership, first as Director of Collective Action, and now as Executive Director. She has brought such spirit, wisdom, and commitment to community partnership and reaching all the “kiddos” in Tacoma as she calls them. I know the Foundation will continue to hold students at the center with Tafona’s leadership.
But the Graduate Tacoma movement would not be possible without the collaboration and commitment of our more than 270 community partners. Since the beginning, you have built out the 2020 Goal, formed and strengthened our four Collaborative Action Networks, help fund the start up, data capacity, and day to day operations, and accepted shared responsibility for the success of Tacoma students.
Because of our extraordinary local community partners and the sustained support of local philanthropy, local business, and City of Tacoma support, we have attracted national investment that now comprises 80% of our annual budget.
Back in 2015, Graduate Tacoma was selected by StriveTogether, the national cradle to career network, to participate in the first ever “Accelerator Cohort” along with five other communities. This designation brought with it substantial investment along with coaching in data capacity and results-based community partnership. Their intentional approach to facilitating diverse, cross-sector voices has guided how we convene community and build shared ownership to sustain the work and remain focused on students most in need. Since then, StriveTogether has continued to invest in Tacoma, helped us build capacity in policy and advocacy and attract additional national foundation and philanthropic support.
Through StriveTogether, we hosted Steve and Connie Ballmer of the Ballmer Group who are looking for those levers that offer the greatest promise of breaking cycles of generational poverty. They are focusing on community-led initiatives across the country with the use of data to track progress and measure improvement. They have made an unprecedented investment in the StriveTogether partnership and the 70 communities across the country that reach more than 13.7 million students nationwide. Their support will have a significant impact on the success of our local cradle to career movement going forward.
Most recently, our success has attracted the attention and investment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest philanthropy organization in the world. They spent much of the past year looking at more than 100 communities across the country and selected Tacoma along with four other communities to learn what’s in our secret sauce as they consider how they might invest and work with communities in the future to improve P-16 outcomes and support partners to close the racial and economic opportunity gaps. As you have heard in recent months, they are investing in capacity and capabilities of our community partners that will leave us collectively stronger and more sustainable two years from now.
Serving as Founding President and CEO of the Foundation of Tacoma Students has been one of the great honors of my life, and I treasure the friendships, colleagues, mentors, and thought partners that have guided me along the way. Thank you.
As Holly mentioned in her letter, moving forward I will stay engaged as a Strategic Advisor to the Foundation. I will also resume my Northwest Public Affairs practice and serve as a Senior Fellow with the national StriveTogether cradle to career network. I look forward to continuing to learn from the best practices of other communities across the country and hopefully share some of what I’ve learned from Tacoma partners to accelerate student progress.
But most of all, I’m looking forward to watching those third graders from 2010 walk across the graduation stage next June as the Class of 2020.
President and CEO
Foundation for Tacoma Students