By Trish Millines Dziko, Co-founder and Executive Director
They said it couldn’t be done.
They said that a nonprofit could never be able to effectively work with a school district to run a school. One of our donors even said that unless we had complete hire and fire control, we’d will never be successful running a school.
Man, were they wrong! Today, in its 9th year of operation, TAF Academy is an award-winning, neighborhood, no barriers to entry, 6th-12th grade STEM school that has, for the last five years, been in the top 5% of Washington State schools closing gaps in math and reading. Four superintendents later since opening its doors in 2008, the partnership between TAF and the Federal Way Public School District is still going strong.
Five TAF Academy graduating classes have yielded a 95% on-time graduation rate, with 100% of them accepted into college, and 91% enrolled in college for the fall semester following graduation. In 2016, the first students began to graduate college.
So, how did it all happen you ask?
It all began back in 2004 when the TAF program staff became frustrated that high school students in our very successful after-school program were not being channeled into the kinds of math and science classes they needed in order to enter computer science and engineering majors in college. Typical of our organizational culture, we started ideating on how to change this practice and came up with this guiding question: What would happen if we had total control of our students’ education by starting a public school in partnership with a school district?
Sherry Williams (Director of Programs at the time), Zithri Saleem (Senior Program Manager at the time) and I set out to answer that question by spending two years visiting schools across the nation, researching, reading, interviewing and assembling a team of public education advisors to help us make our decision. There was this one moment in our conference room where the three of us were looking over all of our findings and simultaneously decided to move forward with this work, jump off the cliff together and do the best we can for our babies. By then, it was 2006. Despite the amount time we’d already invested into making our decision, we still had a lot of work ahead of us (including restructuring the organization to function more like an academic entity) which we accomplished with the support of people in from various fields and backgrounds.
All my life, I’ve believed that things happen for a reason, and when the time is right. We wanted to launch this new school in the Seattle school district, but the conditions were not right – nor was the timing. In late 2006, Tom Murphy, then Superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools, came to my office to discuss the possibility of having this new school model called TAF Academy in his district. After about two hours of discussing our work and the model, Tom proclaimed that TAF Academy belongs in Federal Way. After getting school board, district leadership and teachers’ union approval, we signed a 10 year Joint Operating Agreement in November of 2007.
Armed with an agreement, an amazing school idea, and financial support from the Gates Foundation and the Paul Allen Foundation, we ‘hit the streets.’ We advertised our school through grassroots efforts, by handing out flyers door-to-door in neighboring apartment complexes and houses and hosting informational meetings for prospective students and their families. Sherry even tabled at the local Walmart!
In spring of 2008, we broke ground on the portables that we could call home for almost eight years, and in a neighborhood reflective of the type of students we’ve worked to elevate. It was an exciting day for us because by we’d not only proved that we could do what so many thought was impossible, but also broke ground having filled all our spots (with a waiting list).
Those were our humble beginnings – launching this new way of providing a public education to traditionally underserved students. I am so very proud of our team who started us off and those who are continuing the work. We created an entirely new model, made it successful, continue to improve it, and now we’re scaling it to other public schools.
You can learn more about what’s happening at TAF Academy today by visiting the school website: http://tafacademy.techaccess.org