Tacoma programs make it easier to return to high school, graduate

These days, Karina Quiroz is exploring her options, looking at colleges.

The Tacoma 19-year-old is interested in a veterinary technician program at Pierce College. She also has thought about nursing as a career.

Just a year ago, she was a teenage mom facing an uncertain future without a high school diploma.

During her senior year at Lincoln High School, Quiroz found out she was pregnant. She wanted to finish high school, even with the added responsibility of parenthood.

“I thought I would end up graduating,” she said. “But I didn’t.”

When Quiroz received her final report card, she learned she had failed two courses: trigonometry and senior English. Quiroz, who lives with her parents, took some time off to spend with her daughter, Kelsey, who now is almost 2.

Still determined to earn a diploma, she visited Lincoln, and staff members told her about a new Tacoma Public Schools program that could help her achieve her goal. Quiroz enrolled at the school district’s downtown Reengagement Center and in December, became one of the first two students to earn a diploma through the center.

“I didn’t want my daughter to have a mom who didn’t even graduate from high school,” Quiroz said. “She was my main motivation to get everything done to earn my diploma.”

Quiroz’s experience at the center is one example of how Tacoma is working to open new avenues for success for struggling students.

The school board has set a goal of an 85 percent graduation rate by 2020. The district reported this month that the graduation rate for the class of 2013 rose to 70.2 percent, up 2.6 percent from the year before, and from 55 percent in 2010. This school year, 12 percent of the students who didn’t earn enough credits to graduate in 2013 are continuing their education.

While Tacoma’s graduation rate remains lower than the statewide average of 77.2 percent reported for the class of 2012 and the national rate of 81 percent for that same year, district officials still are pleased with Tacoma’s upward trend.

Washington state’s data for 2012 lists Tacoma at a much higher graduation rate of 73.5 percent, but district officials say that number was the result of a technical glitch. Tacoma estimated its 2012 graduation rate at 67.6 percent.

“After our district hit bottom at 55 percent in 2010, we have seen an increasing trend worth celebrating,” said Superintendent Carla Santorno, who credits hard work by district staff members.

“If you go into any of our high schools today, the leadership and staff teams there know all their students, where they’re at on the path to graduation and are working on individual approaches to helping those students,” Santorno added.

Examples of help for struggling students include programs such as the Reengagement Center, which opened in fall 2013. It combines online learning with support from teachers.

Another is the school district’s Indian Education Program, aimed at Native American students. Last year, 279 Tacoma high school students were in the program, which offers help with academics as well as career and college guidance.

The school district consolidated several jobs into a new office designed to better track students who transfer into Tacoma from outside the city, as well as those who transfer between Tacoma schools. It earmarked $4.7 million this year to give every school (elementary and secondary) an instructional coach — master teachers who work with their peers.

Nationwide, students who grow up in poor families, as well as those who are members of a minority or ethnic group, tend to have lower graduation rates.

Tacoma’s 2013 graduation numbers reflect similar trends: 61 percent of students from low-income families — about two thirds of Tacoma’s total high school population — graduated in four years. That figure is up 2 percent from the year before, but is lower than the 85 percent graduation rate for students not living with poverty. That rate also rose, by 5 percent over 2012.

There’s a gender gap: 75 percent of female students graduated on time (in four years); 65 percent of male students did.

Among ethnic and racial groups, white students had a 76 percent graduation rate, up 2 percent from 2012. Asian students had a 75 percent graduation rate, up 3 percent.

While other groups had lower rates, some showed marked increases. Black students had a graduation rate of 67 percent, up 8 percent from the year before. Native American student graduation rates rose by 9 percent, to 58 percent.

The rate among Pacific Islander students was 54 percent, up 2 percent, while Hispanic student graduation rates were unchanged at 57 percent.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635


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