What does success mean: Tacoma School District taps data to raise graduation rates
Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) is a relatively small urban school district, but they had a big problem. The district’s high schools had become known as “dropout factories,” and their graduation rates had plummeted well below the U.S. average of 81 percent.
That’s the same year Carla Santorno became TPS superintendent, and she knew something had to change.
“When I became superintendent we had a graduation rate of 55 percent, which is shameful,” Santorno says. “Through…tracking and relentless use of data I announced last month that it’s now at 82.6 percent — that is remarkable.”
What prompted the dramatic turnaround? It all comes down to data.
Using Microsoft Azure, the district developed a cloud-based data warehouse solution that captures student grades, attendance, health records and other data. Now school staff can view the data in Excel workbooks, which map to key district benchmarks like math and reading standards, graduation rates, school environment and readiness for life after high school.
Watch Tacoma Public Schools: The saving power of data
According to TPS CIO Shaun Taylor, getting a heads-up when kids are struggling is critical. “We’re working with Microsoft’s data scientists to shift into predictive analytics and see if we can help identify kids that are starting to fall off track so we can do intervention before it’s too late.”
Taylor notes that Microsoft Azure makes it all work. “Through Azure all of our staff and students are on Office 365,” he says, “so we have access to Power BI for the enterprise, and through this predictive analytics, that’s going to be the tool set that we bring down to the classroom.
Ultimately, the success of this data-centric approach comes down to the strength and commitment of the TPS community. For Wilson High School Principal Dan Besett, it’s all about the teachers. He explains that the cloud-based solution focuses on attendance, performance, grades, and credit, while also evaluating students’ state graduation requirements.
“In the end,” Besett says, “if the teachers take care of the students, then the idea of graduating on time is quite easy.”
Santorno agrees that this massive transformation is working because everyone involved is playing their part. “No one person is responsible,” she says, “and we all have to row the boat in the same direction — we have to have the same goals, and we have to set the same high standards, and so that’s what our data piece is all about.”