Over the next four years, Washington’s science and tech economy is expected to grow at a faster pace than the national average, and almost all of the new jobs generated by this growth spurt will require a postsecondary education, according to a study from Georgetown University.
Yet a large segment of King County is unprepared for the shift: In 2009, only 20 percent of black and Hispanic adults in the county had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to roughly half of white and Asian adults. In one of the most diverse districts in the county, Tukwila, only 59 percent of the class of 2012 graduated on time, compared to 93 percent of seniors in Mercer Island.
Meanwhile, in 2013, there were 25,000 unfilled jobs in Washington due to a lack of qualified candidates — 80 percent of those jobs were health-related or in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, (STEM), according to a report from the Washington Round Table.
Several groups in the Seattle area are hoping to narrow the racial and economic achievement gaps by better equipping disadvantaged students with the skills needed to thrive in the STEM industries. Their efforts, though imperfect, are collectively reshaping the face of STEM education in the region. As part of Crosscut’s Community Idea Lab project, we’re highlighting three of these programs as a way to inspire new strategies to use Seattle’s tech boom as an asset, rather than allowing it to fuel widening income inequality.
The Technology Access Foundation Academy
For years, the face of a prototypical scientist or engineer was white. That pattern is slowly changing, driven locally by the Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit facilitating the increased participation of students of color in the STEM fields. The program was founded by former Microsoft programmer, Trish Millines Dziko and her partner, adoption social worker Jill Dziko. Early on, the couple pinpointed three barriers preventing people of color from actively engaging in the STEM fields: low expectations, a dearth of role models and a lack of access to STEM-focused education.
TAF is whittling away at those barriers across south King County through teacher training and after-school programs, but perhaps their biggest endeavor is the Technology Access Foundation Academy. Based in Kent, the academy is the only Washington state public school co-managed by a school district and a nonprofit. (In this case, TAF and Federal Way School District.)
The academy follows Federal Way School district guidelines for accepting new students, prioritizing children who live in the neighborhood first, followed by children who live in the district and then children outside the district. Students are selected by lottery since each grade level cannot exceed 50 students.
TAF Academy students Simran Kaur, Veronica Pederson, Allison Deboar and Mahlet Tiruneh carting their laptops around campus. Photo Credit: Technology Access Foundation.
The school, which supplies every student with a laptop, focuses on experiential, interdisciplinary learning. It also exposes students to STEM industries through guest lectures and field trips to companies like Google and Microsoft. Ninth and tenth graders follow up major research projects with a week off-campus job shadowing or interning at a local business or government office. Tenth graders can also apply to a three-year program with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where they spend two days each month studying biomedical research. Come summer, they take on full-time internships there.
For many students at TAF Academy, school is the only time they’re exposed to STEM professionals or technologies they may not have access to in their own communities. Within the first three years of the academy, TAF says math proficiency scores increased by 42 percent schoolwide and 90 percent of students in its first two graduating classes went to college. In March, TAF Academy was named one of Washington’s most innovative schools by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
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