Annual Letter from the Superintendent

Santorno_Carla.jpgCarla Santorno

I love my Apple iPhone.

I can say with confidence there has NEVER been a time while using my iPhone that I’ve thought about Steve Jobs. Before Jobs died in 2011 from cancer, his creative genius inspired the iPhone and many other accomplishments that made Apple the world’s most valuable company.

I recently did think about Steve Jobs when contemplating the past school year and looking ahead to the school year about to start. During a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, Jobs described his humble beginnings as the child of an unwed mother who put him up for adoption to college-educated parents because she wanted a college education for her son. Something she couldn’t give him.

Jobs didn’t live up to his biological mother’s expectations. He dropped out of college after 18 months, because he didn’t see any value in it. Instead, he took a calligraphy class for fun. And what he learned about typography in that class would later influence his invention of the revolutionary Macintosh computer.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” Jobs told the Stanford graduates, “you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

What does that have to do with Tacoma Public Schools?

Last year, our school district experienced a run of unprecedented recognition.

• We set an all-time record graduation rate of 82.6 percent.
• Our school board’s leadership and the successes of our schools, earn a 2015 District of Distinction award from District Administration Magazine.
• Lincoln High School’s Nathan Gibbs-Bowling won the state Teacher of the Year Award and was named one of four finalists for the national Teacher of the Year.
• Lister Elementary School’s Kate Frazier won the state Elementary School Principal of the Year Award.
• ASCD, the international association dedicated to education of the whole child, gave its 2016 Vision in Action Award to Jason Lee Middle School for changing the conversation about education.
• Lincoln, Stadium and Wilson high school’s made the Washington Post’s list of the nation’s Most Challenging High Schools.
• Downing and DeLong elementary schools and Gray Middle School won Washington Schools of Distinction Awards for their sustained academic growth.
• AASA, the national Superintendents Association, named me as winner of its prestigious Women in School Leadership award – an honor more for our school district’s
collective achievements than mine.

Looking backwards, you can connect the dots to see how we got to this point. It started from humble beginnings. In 2010, Tacoma Public Schools recorded a paltry graduation rate of 55 percent. Our high schools wore the label of “dropout factories,” thanks to a national study reported in USA Today and repeated in the local news. The Great Recession, which hammered the national, state and local economies, caused us to close two schools and slash spending. You’ve heard the term “rock bottom?” On performance and reputation, Tacoma Public Schools had nowhere to go but up.

Your school board members stepped up to change things. They adopted a new strategic plan with four primary goal areas—academic achievement, partnerships, early learning and safety. Eventually, we began to tie annual district spending to those four goal areas.

We identified the data we needed to track and benchmark that would best guide our work, then we built a public website where you could follow the data trends too. I often say, “What gets measured, gets done.” And, for example, we began to see huge advances each year in graduation rates after our school board set a goal to raise the graduation rate to 85 percent by 2020.

Most recently, in the school year just past, for the first time anyone can remember, we have begun to show minor improvements in the discipline gaps between white students and alarmingly higher rates of suspensions and expulsions for students of color—another one of the data benchmarks we track so that we can lower it.

Connecting the dots is easy looking backwards. So what about the future? Steve Jobs said, “…you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in somethingyour gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

The dots MUST continue to connect in the future of Tacoma Public Schools, because the futures of our students depend on it. The accomplishments of the past, while certainly worth celebrating, still leave us with MUCH more work to do.

• We must do better at reducing the discipline disparities between white students and students of color. I know that a student’s academic performance won’t get better if they’re not in school because they have been suspended or expelled.
• We have not yet reached our 2020 graduation goal. While we have narrowed our graduation gaps between traditionally higher performing students and traditionally
lower performing students, we still have gaps we must eliminate.
• We don’t believe in standardized tests scores as the only high-stakes measure of student academic performance, but we must do better across the board on test scores.

That’s why my trust for our future will continue to rely on our school board’s strategic plan and goals. I will continue to trust in the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative—our 10-year partnership with University of Washington Tacoma that trains our teaching corps to set and reward positive behavior standards in school and work to keep more students in school rather than suspending them. I will continue to trust in our district-wide focus on equity, access and high expectations. I will continue to trust in our preschool expansions, which have created hundreds more classroom seats, especially in impoverished neighborhoods. I will continue to trust in the leadership of our school principals. I will continue to trust in the growth and expertise of our teachers. I will continue to trust in our growing numbers of community partners whose time and resources help our students in ways the schools cannot.

If we hope to connect more dots on this path of success, I would much rather trust those things than my “gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever,” as Steve Jobs would say. The future of our students depends on it. 

Carla J. Santorno, Superintendent