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Four Lessons From the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative

By Learning Is Social & Emotional Contributor — May 29, 2018 3 min read

Five years ago, Tacoma launched the Whole Child Initiative, with the goal of supporting the comprehensive development and success of each student. We have seen firsthand that supporting the whole child comes with a new set of challenges. But, with the right partners and a focused plan, this approach can make all the difference for students and teachers.

Here’s what we think other districts can learn from our success in Tacoma.

1) Believe in Change

All adults who interact with our 30,000 students in preschool through grade 12 must buy into our premise that a student’s race, ethnicity, or economic status are not that student’s destiny. It’s more important that we as educators, mentors, support staff, and adults find out what makes each student tick. What they like to do. What they want to do with their lives.

This relentless focus is helping us make progress in many areas, including creating a culture of graduation: Our graduation rate has increased from 55 percent in 2010 to 85 percent in 2016. But graduation is not only about passing a proficiency test. It is about developing a sense of worth, resilience, and a vision for the future. Kids go home saying, “I’m going to college.” Parents tell us every day that they may not have set that goal themselves, but are glad their children have.

2) Develop a Strategic Plan, and Use It!

You must have a strategic plan that commits you to this work. It shouldn’t be the onerously over-sized plan that, once created, gathers dust. Our strategic plan is truly a living document that outlines our shared goals and how we measure our progress, centered on four main priorities:


  • Academic Excellence
  • Partnerships
  • Early Learning
  • Safety

The plan provides our entire community with a clear vision of our desired outcomes, a common language to describe our work, and a through-line for supporting the whole child at the classroom, school, and community levels. But the plan also includes room for leaders at these various levels to own the work--identifying areas for distributed leadership, decision-making, and flexibility.

3) Reimagine Data

A commitment to continuous improvement on behalf of the whole child requires a new, expanded approach to data and measurement. We measure our progress in each of the four areas of the strategic plan using 35 benchmarks that are regularly reported in dashboards to administrators and, soon, teachers. These benchmarks measure learning conditions, community partnerships, opportunities for rigorous learning, and more; the collected data is then analyzed at multiple points throughout the year to inform our progress. To this end, we’ve invested in training and professional development for teachers and school leaders to interpret data, make data-informed decisions, and make the necessary adjustments to help their students succeed.

4) Leverage Partners

No district, school, or classroom can do this alone. We launched the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative with many partners, and the numbers continue to grow. However, we cannot talk about our work without mentioning the University of Washington-Tacoma. As they have from the beginning, UW-Tacoma staff help us with strategic planning as well as the professional training our teachers want and need to better understand how to integrate social, emotional, and academic development in everything they do.

Our partnerships extend to the city, which helps us run a school at the Metro Parks Point Defiance Zoo, and to youth-serving community partners who help us give students opportunities to participate in activities they enjoy and from which they can learn social and emotional skills such as collaboration and resilience. For example, the Boys and Girls Clubs recruit and give space to mentors who support our children throughout the week with homework, activities, or just a ready ear to talk through their problems.

My parting advice is that school districts and communities must work together around connected strategies to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development. Everyone must know the importance of social and emotional skills, understand the strategies needed to build them, and be operating from the same playbook.

Photo: Teachers greet students at the school bus at the Tacoma Science and Math Institute (SAMI). (Courtesy of The Aspen Institute and Tacoma Public Schools/Dean Koepfler)

Carla Santorno is the superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools.

The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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