The Whole Child, Every Child – A Story of Implementation

Dr. Josh Garcia, Deputy Superintendent, Tacoma Public Schools, is a member of Scholastic's National Advisory Council (NAC). Read about the NAC's day-long dialogue about equity in education here.

Some of my most powerful memories from childhood are resonant with painful feelings. I can still remember the particular mildew smell of a car I rode in during a fight between my parents; I remember both the feel of loving hugs and words from my parents, but also seeing my mom wilt from the memories of her own youth. Even all these years later, such memories remind me of the conditions children endure—but cannot control—in their lives, which shape their experience before they even set foot in school

I carry this with me in my work every day, and especially so as my colleagues and I took on the task of figuring out how better to support the children of Tacoma, Washington. 

The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative started with a simple dream: to support the whole child, every child

An important question followed: How do we build a community that operationalizes its policies, programs, practices, people and passions to ensure every child is safe, supported, healthy, engaged and challenged? 

Simple, right?

Below I will share some of our goals, challenges and successes in Tacoma, as well as our hopes for the future. What follows is not intended to be a how-to guide, but rather a look at how we approached things in our district, and some lessons learned.

Start with the end in mind

We started with a dream. Next, we asked a lot of questions, and talked about why it was important to achieve this dream. 

Why focus on social emotional and academic development (SEAD)? Why support the whole child? Why is this important to our youth, our businesses, our families, our neighbors? 

In today’s political landscape of what have you done for me lately?, we knew it was critical to keep our goals at the center of our work. However, we didn’t stop there. In order to make the dream a reality, we knew we needed to operationalize the dream, and ultimately be able to show not just where we were finding success, but also where there was more work to be done.

Take a hard look in the mirror

In Tacoma, we started by taking a hard look in the mirror.

In 2010, Tacoma’s graduation rates were 55%. Every comprehensive high school had been labeled a dropout factory. The schools had some of the highest discipline rates in the state. Few kids were entering post-secondary experiences. The city was angry, and board members and superintendents were in flux. There was little trust among stakeholders, and the only thing everyone agreed on was that everyone else was disrespectful and irresponsible, and the kids weren’t safe. To say the least, we were facing major challenges on all sides. But we kept our dream for Tacoma’s kids top-of-mind.

Looking deeper in the mirror, we found in our school community a rich history of innovation, pride, grit, and underlying belief in supporting the whole child. 

This brought focus: we knew we didn’t need a person or a program to save us, we needed to agree on what success was going to look like. If we were going to raise a whole child, we had to define and measure our efforts. The way to improve academic achievement and to close the achievement gap is to close the opportunity gap: the opportunity for every child to be safe, healthy, supported, engaged and challenged. And in order to make this a reality, we knew we had to quantify our goals and our results.

In the fall of 2012, we arrived at a definition of success for our district: thirty-four benchmarks across pre-K through 12th grade (learn more here).

One of these benchmarks was that every school would have a social-emotional learning plan. Other benchmarks included engagement through extra-curricular activities, safety through discipline and challenging students through rigorous course-taking. We even set a goal of 85% graduation rate in 2020: a 30% increase in 10 years. Bold, and somewhat intimidating!

We had our first success. Under our school board’s leadership, our community had developed an accountability system that not only measured test scores and standards, but also demanded that we were accountable for social-emotional learning

Together, we started by analyzing the current status, designing and implementing data infrastructure and changing frameworks. We dug deep to understand each element of current data, conducted gap analyses and used business analytics and intelligence to approach the work more efficiently and effectively.  Although data transparency can leave you feeling vulnerable, it is also a powerful tool for building trust. That trust can lead to partnerships, which in turn can lead to increased results.

So what does it look like?

In partnership with Dr. Greg Benner (University of Washington, Tacoma) and Dr. Jennifer Kubista (Tacoma Public Schools), we created a “4 shift” approach to leading SEAD (School, Community Partners, Families & Neighborhoods). 

For each shift, we identified, developed and fostered leadership, bearing in mind that school and district leaders must be willing to ground equity in policy. An army of staff (teachers, administrators, bus drivers, school resource officers… everyone) and community-based organizations were trained in core SEL strategies that help identify students in need of support.

Partners came into schools to provide small group instruction, intervention, therapy and support around each of our thirty-four benchmarks. Those students who needed more were referred to additional one-to-one and family support. Families and neighborhoods also received the education and support they needed to partner with schools for their children’s education.

We developed infrastructure to support data-driven initiatives, such as formalized MOUs and contracts that created data access to drive policy alignment for resources and sustainability. District and school leaders create resolutions to support the Whole Child Initiative, which are formally adopted on a yearly basis. These steps codify our engagement and commitment. 

We also created business partnerships and found grant opportunities that further advanced student benchmarks to support student success—and our guiding principal is always that student success comes first, and individual pocketbooks second. 

And even at the school level, common terms like safe, respectful and responsible were defined and contextualized using visuals and language. We operationalized our commitment to the whole child at every level, from policies and spending to establishing in-school environments.

If you look into Tacoma, you will see we have not arrived. There is much work to be done; we know it and we accept it. However, discipline rates at an all-time low. And this year, graduation rates are at an all-time high (85%). 

We can tell you that we are proud of what our city has done on behalf of our youth.  One city, working in four shifts, starting with one essential question: How do we ensure every child is safe, healthy, engaged, supported and challenged, a "whole child"? 

For more information on Tacoma Public Schools and The Tacoma Whole Child Intitiative, follow Greg Benner (@GJBenner), Dr. Jennifer Kubista (@JenniferKubista), and Dr. Joshua Garcia (@Garciaj9Josh).