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Once Labeled 'Dropout Factories,' Tacoma High Schools Post Record-High Graduation Rates

Joe Mabel
Wikimedia Commons
FILE - Stadium High School

Nearly four out of five Tacoma high school students graduated on time in 2014 — the highest graduation rate the district has posted in the decade Washington state has officially tracked the figure, district leaders announced Tuesday.

The district's graduation rate topped 78 percent last year, according to Tacoma Public Schools data — up more than 20 percentage points from 2010, when around 55 percent of the city's high schoolers earned their diplomas on time.

Where The District Was, Where It Is Now & Where It's Going

Tacoma has been on the front lines of a national high school dropout crisis. In 2007, a national report labeled all five of Tacoma's comprehensive public high schools as "dropout factories," where fewer than 60 percent of freshmen ever made it through their senior year.

But four of those high schools — Foss, Lincoln, Stadium and Wilson — achieved their highest grad rates in five years in 2014, the district data shows. Mt. Tahoma High School posted a 69.8 percent graduation rate in 2011; last year, it was around 67 percent.

"We haven’t reached our goal yet," Tacoma superintendent Carla Santorno said in a statement noting the district hopes to achieve an 85 percent graduation rate by 2020.

"The work will only get harder in the years to come," Santorno added. "But today we need to praise the leadership of our principals, the hard work of our top-notch teachers and the support of caring staff members throughout the district."

Dismantling 'Dropout Factories'

Johns Hopkins University education researcher Robert Balfanz originally coined the term dropout factory in 2004 to describe what he called a "common, distinct pattern" in certain schools where ninth graders rarely earned their diplomas.

When Balfanz came out in 2007 with a list of nearly 1,700 dropout factories in the U.S., he counted 22 in Washington — and no district in the state had more dropout factories than Tacoma. No Seattle or Spokane high schools made the list.

While Balfanz received criticism from those who thought the term assigned blame to needy, strained schools, he said creating the dropout factory label "was more about the idea that this was a solvable problem that wasn't being addressed."

He said the label has, in some cases, pushed communities to call for change in schools.

"I think that came together, like in Tacoma is a good example, and other places, to spur people to action. As a result, good things happened, so we're happy to have played a role in that," Balfanz said.

But he said doling out dropout factory labels was only "one of many factors" that have spurred districts like Tacoma to bring about change.

Balfanz noted it wasn't until 2008 that the U.S. Department of Education created uniform rules for how states should track graduation rates and set more meaningful improvement goals.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.