Focusing on the Whole Child

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A unique partnership between UW Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools and Tacoma Public Schools is giving teachers and students back time in the classroom and changing how they feel about going to school.

In Tacoma’s Public Schools, as in many schools around the country, up to 60 percent of class time was once lost due to student disruption or disengagement. But with a new partnership between UW Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools, students are getting time back.

Feeling Pushed Out

Each year in our city’s schools, 10 percent of students are suspended or expelled, and African American or Hispanic students are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students. Many of these students start to feel misunderstood and disrupt or disengage from the classroom, and eventually drop out.

This is compounded by the fact that almost two thirds of students qualify for free or reduced lunches and nearly 1 in 5 have mental health issues. The district serves 1,500 homeless students. With so much instability in their lives, it can be difficult for these students to engage in school, especially if they already feel pushed out.

The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative (TWCI) tackles the achievement gap by first addressing an even deeper problem: the engagement gap. | Photos courtesy Tacoma Public Schools.“We needed to create learning environments that are welcoming toward all students, and to make them more equitable,” says Greg Benner, UW Tacoma professor of education and the executive director for the Center for Strong Schools.

To that end, Tacoma Public Schools and UW Tacoma have created a unique, ten-year partnership called the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative (TWCI). The initiative is a way to tackle the achievement gap by looking at an even deeper problem: the engagement gap.

Starting With the Whole Child

At the initiative’s core is a seemingly simple idea: to make sure students are understood and have their needs met – not just academically, but socially and emotionally. The program considers the varied experiences students bring to class every day, whether they come from low-income backgrounds, have been through traumatic experiences, are students of color, as well as other factors. It aims to make students feel safe and welcomed in their schools. Only then can they really begin to engage with their education.

“The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative, from a principal’s perspective, is a systematic approach to understanding and dealing with the individual needs that a student brings to school, and being able to determine what those needs are, so that we can be better prepared to educate them,” says Justina Johnson, Principal of Truman Middle School.

How can schools help students want to go to school? The TWCI uses a strategy called Positive Behavior Intervention Support, which aims to change the school culture by creating positive relationships between the adults and students, built on a set of shared expectations.

The initiative starts by trying to meet each child's needs, not just academically, but also socially and emotionally.Teachers and staff greet students by name as they get off the bus each morning. At Truman Middle School, good behavior is rewarded with a free dress day, a pass to get into the lunch line early, or an invitation to a party with the principal.

Everyone in the school that interacts with students – custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria employees – is encouraged to build positive relationships with students. At Point Defiance Elementary, one of the custodians created a “golden plunger” award for the students that kept their hallway the cleanest.

These relationships are based on shared expectations for behavior. Staff doesn’t just tell students what they expect – they show them. Before recess, a teacher might remind students that safe, respectful play involves being kind to others, while still having fun. Before silent reading, a teacher might show them how to read respectfully, without talking or bothering others. That common set of expectations can provide stability to students, especially those that might not get the same level of consistency at home. It can change the conversations staff has with students, moving away from students saying, “The teacher just hates me,” toward a discussion about shared expectations.

Coming Together

Throughout the upcoming school year, the TWCI will be implemented in all Tacoma Public Schools this year; it has already been in place for the past school year in 13 schools.

Work on the TWCI began in January 2012, sparked by former UW Tacoma Chancellor, the late Debra Friedman, Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno and Deputy Superintendent Joshua Garcia. From there, Benner and the Center for Strong Schools and Tacoma Public Schools Director of Student Life Jennifer Kubista got involved, as well as many of other staff and faculty.

TWCI brings professional and technical support from UW Tacoma directly to the school district. UW Tacoma provides training and guidance and tracks data, such as where and when behavioral incidents occur, so educators can respond appropriately and nip the problem in the bud.

“The partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma is essential to the success” of the program, says Garcia.

A Blueprint for Change

To develop a strategy for implementation of the TWCI, project leaders worked with Milgard School of Business Associate Professor Tracy Thompson to make the best plan for sustainable change. Many urban school districts often take on too many initiatives at once or cycle through them too quickly. To help avoid that pitfall, TWCI stresses a methodical implementation.

The program started with over a year of training to prepare school district leadership and teachers. Then, the first cohort of 13 schools began to focus on campus climate and positive behavioral supports at the beginning of last school year, and remaining schools in the district will implement over the course of the next school year.

The next step will be to screen student academic skills, social emotional skills and look for early warning indicators, like low attendance, poor grades, or suspensions. Students who are struggling in any of these areas will get a second tier of support, like mentorship or afterschool tutoring. Once this system is up and running, the TWCI will start to involve community resources and other partners in earnest, particularly to help high-risk students.

The TWCI focuses on creating a positive school climate.

Seeing Results

The TWCI is just two years in, and its practices have only been in schools for one year. Still, “early results are extremely promising,” says Garcia.

The district has seen a decrease in discipline referrals and late arrivals and an increase in attendance, completed homework, and test scores. At Mount Tahoma High School, the total number of tardy arrivals dropped, from 5,970 in September 2012 to 2,162 in September 2013. In the first cohort of schools to begin the initiative, the total office discipline referrals went from 1,219 in the fall of 2012 to 904 in the fall of 2013. Additionally, students are increasing the amount of time they spend on-task and in class.

“Once the day started last year, my door would be a constant revolving door of kids coming in with behavior concerns,” says Arron Wilkins, principal of Boze Elementary, who used to deal with between 10 and 15 students every day. “Now I’m getting one to two office referrals a day.”

Benner says that because students are spending more time on-task and in class, teachers are gaining up to 15 more minutes of teaching time per 45-minute class; some have even rescheduled their lesson plans in an effort to better use the additional class time.

Because overall office referrals are decreasing, “students who need intensive support rise to the top, and they don’t fall through the cracks,” says Johnson.

The TWCI could also save the school district money. In 2013, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy looked at the benefit-cost percentage for a variety of practices used by state school districts. In its evaluation, the TWCI’s Positive Behavior Intervention Support strategy scored a 99 percent. Additionally, that score did not include anticipated savings based on increased teacher retention, should teachers choose to stay in Tacoma thanks to reduced teaching stress and improved school climate.

Teachers, school district staff and community members come together to create a positive, welcoming learning environment.

Changing Tacoma

The TWCI may have sprung from a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and UW Tacoma, but it relies on the whole city.

“We really do need the support of the community, and leaders in the community, and parents in the community, and those of you [who deal] with kids on a day-to-day basis, or [who] just care about kids on a day-to-day basis. We need your help,” says Benner. “It’s going to be a team effort.”

Many of the TWCI leadership are Tacoma natives. Jennifer Kubista, director of student life with Tacoma Public Schools, is a graduate of Wilson High School. “[To] give back to almost 30,000 kids on a daily basis, that’s what I’m excited about.” she says. “…It’s about letting kids find their passion, it’s about really setting them up so they have clear goals, so they have high expectations regardless of where they come from, and [believe] that they can be successful.”

That effort could have a lasting impact on the city. “These students are going to be our neighbors, our friends and working in our community,” says Santorno.

Garcia echoes that sentiment. “The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative may be our best effort to date to improve the quality of our city, our schools, and overall our region, and so we’re extremely optimistic, heavily invested, and excited about the future of Tacoma.”

More Information

Learn more about the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative on UW Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools website or make a gift to the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative. Contact Center for Strong Schools Executive Director Greg Benner at or 253-692-4621 for more information on the program.

You can also read more about the program in the article "Tacoma School District, UWT unite to help kids feel safe, rewarded and whole," by Debbie Cafazzo in The News Tribune.

Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / August 11, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, media relations, 253-692-4536 or