Inside the pioneering Seattle area school that’s shaking up how STEM education is taught by Lisa Stiffler

Inside the pioneering Seattle area school that’s shaking up how STEM education is taught by Lisa Stiffler

From the outside, TAF Academy is not much to look at.

Housed in a series of bland, portable classrooms — tucked like an afterthought between a middle school and elementary school just east of Interstate 5 and some 20 miles south of Seattle — the school can send one repeatedly back to Google Maps with doubts that you’re in the right place.

But inside those modest walls is something approaching a revolution in STEM education. TAF Academy, a sixth- to 12th-grade public school focused on teaching kids science, technology, engineering and math, is defying the odds.

Roughly 20 percent of the students are black, 20 percent are Hispanic and 30 percent are white. Half of the 300 kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Yet, 95 percent of the high school students graduate on time — compared to 78 percent of kids in public schools across Washington, and only 68 percent of African American students hit that mark statewide.

And with stats worthy of elite private schools, 100 percent of the TAF Academy graduates are accepted into college.

This year the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and Kent’s TAF Academy marks its eighth year. On Saturday, they’re hosting a fundraising party to support their efforts to bring technology to a racially, culturally and economically diverse set of students — slices of society that are chronically underrepresented in the tech community.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. Seattle Public Schools rejected TAF’s offer to establish a STEM school in the district and passage of the charter school initiative four years ago derailed an initial strategy for establishing more TAF schools.

But TAF co-founder and executive director Trish Millines Dziko is delighted with what they’ve accomplished. In addition to the academy, which serves as a sort of experimental lab for the TAF approach, the nonprofit organization has a teacher training program and is bringing the TAF program to other public schools, with the goal of transforming 60 schools in 20 years.

“We have a whole different version of what STEM means,” said Dziko. “It’s not the stand-alone subjects. It’s having a set of tools to solve problems or create things.”

At its core, TAF prioritizes building strong relationships between students, teachers and families. It uses project-based learning, in which basic academics are taught and reinforced through assignments that incorporate many subjects and more fully engage students. It strives to make sure the education connects to the students’ broader community and feels relevant to their lives. And it deliberately prepares kids for college.

“Kids want to stay with this program because they know No. 1 that they are loved, and No. 2, if they fail, they’re not labeled as a failure,” Dziko said. “We are the place where they want to be.”
Engaging and supporting students

While TAF Academy is largely unremarkable from outside, the classrooms are noticeably different from typical schools. Desks are arranged in clusters, and whether it’s a class in humanities, engineering and design, or Japanese or Chinese language, the students are collaborating on assignments, working through problems and giving each other feedback.

The day is broken into 90 minute periods covering four subject areas. And while the school is STEM focused, it integrates other subjects to create a multidisciplinary approach to education for the students.

“They are being engaged in more authentic project work that feels like stuff that happens in the world,” said Philip Bell, a University of Washington professor and executive director of the UW Institute for Science & Math Education. “It passes the ‘smell test’ for kids.”

Bell is working with TAF and TAF Academy on a project to create and research curriculum that integrates computing and project-based, interdisciplinary STEM learning. The project received a three-year, $1.5 million grant last fall from the National Science Foundation (NSF) STEM+C program.
If you get your environment right, you can get your kids to do anything.

Carlito Umali, a TAF Academy humanities teacher, is sold on the interdisciplinary approach. Umali team-teaches seventh grade with a STEM instructor. Umali incorporates science into his lessons, helping kids learn to read scientific text and asking them to do assignments like writing about their favorite organelles inside cells.

The academy’s teachers are assigned the same batch of kids for two years in order to build stronger connections. Umali said those relationships are helped by the fact that he’s a racial minority and comes from a low-income background. He relates to the students and their families, and they know that his classroom “is a safe place to go.”

That atmosphere of love, support and acceptance makes a real difference in academics, Umali said.

“If you get your environment right, you can get your kids to do anything,” he said. “Even stuff they don’t think they could do.”
Launching the TAF vision

For decades, Dziko has been pushing kids to strive for bigger, brighter futures.

She worked 15 years as a developer, designer and manager at Microsoft and other tech companies. While at Microsoft, she was a member of the group that organized the first company-sponsored diversity organization, Blacks At Microsoft (BAM). But over time, she began looking to the tech pipeline and was increasingly concerned about the lack of opportunities for kids from racial minorities.

“The tech industry is one where there is a profile,” she said, “and African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans do not fit in that profile.”

So she helped launch TAF and its after-school tech internship program in the racially diverse Columbia City neighborhood in Southeast Seattle. It began as a high-school program that eventually expanded all the way to kindergarten. It gave hundreds of kids a huge boost in their academics and understanding of technology, but it still wasn’t enough.

“We started being alerted to our high school kids not being able to get into computer science and engineering classes in college. They weren’t on the right math track in high school,” Dziko said.

That led to a new idea.

“What if we had complete control of their education?” Dziko and others at TAF wondered. “What if we started a school?”

A setback, then success

TAF leaders worked for two years to put together a plan to bring their program to Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School, a racially diverse institution that performed badly on standardized tests and was way under enrolled. The district was initially on board, but the plan fell flat; teachers balked at the idea and some in the community feared the program was elitist.

Dziko suspects part of the problem was the poor relationship between parents and the district.

Federal Way Public Schools, located south of Seattle, saw their opportunity and seized it, welcoming TAF into the district. The result was TAF Academy, a unique public school — not a charter school — that is co-managed by the district and TAF.

The academy receives the standard funding for each student as provided by the state, as well as an additional $2,500 per student from TAF to cover tech support and college and career readiness.

Among TAF’s supporters is Margit McGuire, director and professor of Teacher Education at Seattle University. The university sends many teachers to TAF Academy for their student teaching experience.

“We really are looking for the best practice in schools, and TAF (Academy) is one of best schools around,” McGuire said.

“We like their philosophy of looking at the whole child,” she said, “their commitment to justice and diversity, and the real view that all kids can learn no matter what their circumstances are, and their focus on project-based learning.”

Building on the success of the academy, TAF created a summer teacher training program in 2012 in order to spread their reach. But Dziko and TAF had an even grander vision in mind.
Winning over teachers

“Our original plan was to open five TAF Academy schools,” Dziko said. But then the organization hit another roadblock with the passage of the charter school initiative, which drew resources and attention away from their approach. So they shifted to a new model: transform existing public schools.

TAF is working on its third transformation school, Boze Elementary in Tacoma. Some 83 percent of Boze students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, more than one-third of the kids are Hispanic or Latino and 17 percent are black.

This the second year that TAF has been working to implement their model at Boze. Before they got started, they required buy-in of the superintendent, the school board, the principal and 80 percent of the school’s teachers.

The teachers “were a little bit skeptical,” Dziko said. Many of the instructors had been burned in the past by new educational fads thrust upon them and then abandoned soon after. But in the end, 90 percent of the Boze teachers voted to partner with TAF.

“The hardest thing is to get the schools to understand that this isn’t an additional curriculum,” said Shoshanna Cohen, a TAF teaching coach working at Boze. “It supplements what they’re already doing in the classroom. We have a hard time changing the teachers’ mindset.”

But it can be powerful to see the kids engaging with the project-based learning approach.

Last year, the kindergarten students built “Kindertown” out of scrounged boxes and other supplies. They created pretend stores and money and cut out items they could purchase. They even built their own cardboard ATM machine and tracked their spending.

“Their math scores soared,” Cohen said.

In another project, Boze fifth graders this year are going to be working with college students from the UW’s Tacoma campus. They’re going to engineer a 3D printable object to sell at the student store.

“This is something they might be interested in in the future,” said Cohen. “They are exposed not only the profession, but build connections through their college mentors.”

The cost for implementing the transformation is less than $500 per pupil — a cheaper price tag than the added cost per student at TAF Academy, where educators are taking a more experimental approach and testing new ideas.

The plan is for TAF to maintain a hands-on connection with Boze for five years, with an on-campus presence the first three years, then shifting to a more supportive role the last two years.

Cohen admits it’s a hard transition. The project-based, interdisciplinary approach “is messy learning and it scares teachers in the beginning,” she said. Test scores can drop in the first couple of years when the lessons aren’t perfectly aligned with the standards. But the longer-term potential is exciting — kids learn to assess and motivate themselves, to solve problems and think holistically.

“I can’t imagine what the world would be like,” she said, “if everyone was doing this kind of learning. What a world that would be.”

‘We can do anything’

Next year, TAF takes another leap. The STEM school is leaving its portables and merging with Saghalie Middle School in nearby Federal Way. Overnight, they’ll grow from 300 students to 800.

This could be one of the toughest tests of the TAF approach. The strategy of building strong relationships with students and families and tackling project-based curriculum are more easily accomplished in a smaller school.

“It’s a pretty complex model to be implementing, and they’re on a growth curve,” said Bell, the UW professor. “My concerns for them mostly has to do with the capacity to do the heavy lifting that is involved with that work.”

The difficulty, he said, is finding the energy and support needed to allow that model to expand and sink in, and figuring out how to bring the new people on board.

McGuire, from Seattle University, agreed. “How do you take the vision that TAF has, and have the buy-in in an authentic way where the teachers can have voice and shape it?”

And there’s the extra per-student funding that’s needed to run a TAF program.

“They are certainly working hard to pull off the model,” Bell said, “and they’ve been successful to this point.”

The stakes are high. The educators all point to how important it is to draw more kids from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds into STEM academics and careers. In Washington, less than 3 percent of the tech workforce is Hispanic or African American.

Dziko has faith that TAF will get there.

“We always have challenges and as long as we keep our eye on the mission and our kids, we can do anything,” she said. “We can adjust anyway we need to. I feel confident that there is not a single staff member who will walk way because it gets hard. This is our core and our fabric.”


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