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Initiative aims to boost the number of Tacoma students enrolling in and completing college

S Kaya
University of Washington Tacoma/Flickr

Tacoma Public Schools has increased its graduation rate in recent years, though, as KNKX Public Radio has reported, some of the gain is due to a state policy that excludes students in dropout re-engagement programs from the calculations.

Nevertheless, there has been growth in the number of students receiving a diploma. But that's not the case for the number of students going on to college.

The percentage of Tacoma public-school graduates who enrolled in a two- or four-year post-secondary program declined from 58 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2017. About half of the students who enrolled stuck with it through completion. Those statistics come from a new report published by the Foundation for Tacoma Students, which coordinates a community network called Graduate Tacoma focused on improving outcomes for the city’s youth.

People with college degrees earn more over their lifetimes than people with just a high school diploma. The foundation, in partnership with a community group called Degrees of Change, is launching an initiative called Tacoma Completes aimed at helping high school graduates navigate college.

“It’s time for us to think as a movement — how do we wrap our hands around our students, help support them through the nuances and unknown of college, and get them through persistence and completion?” said Tafona Ervin, executive director of the Foundation for Tacoma Students.

Ervin said there are a lot of reasons why young people may struggle in pursuing higher education. Some of those reasons include housing and food insecurity, transportation issues, and the need to work and support family members.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said some students have opted to enter the workforce as the economy has improved. And she said the school district has increased the opportunities for students to earn a certificate while in high school that will lead to family-wage employment. 

"Our job is to get kids ready so they have whatever it takes to make a choice to get into a four-year institution," Santorno said. "I want to make sure that they have that as a choice, but there are students that are making other choices."

As part of the Tacoma Completes effort, the foundation is working with Tacoma Housing Authority so low-income students can tap into housing vouchers, Ervin said.

The foundation also is planning a one-day event at the end of May to bring together high school seniors heading to Tacoma-area colleges, so they can get to know one another and familiarize themselves with what comes next.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.