by Sarah Jackson
Tukwila, Washington, has changed a lot in recent years. As recently as 1990, more than 80 percent of this Seattle suburb’s roughly 12,000 residents were white. Today, more than 35 different languages are spoken in one elementary school, and a Bosnian refugee grocery store buyer now stocks yak’s milk cheese for his Nepalese customers.
This once sleepy suburb, described in a recent news article as “the sort of place most of us just blast by,” is a new gateway to immigrant families from around the globe and for others from as close by as the neighborhoods of central and south Seattle. All are seeking more affordable housing and proximity to the region’s service sector jobs.
But with these changes have come challenges. The poverty rate in Tukwila has jumped from 9 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2007–2011. As Alan Berube recently pointed out, it’s now South King County—not Seattle—that “is home to the majority of the county’s low-income kids.”
Many of these kids arrive at school speaking limited or no English and needing significant social supports to be ready to learn. This is on top of the unemployment and poor health and nutrition that their families face. More than 77 percent of the students in the district qualified for free or reduced price lunch in the 2011–2012 school year, and a staggering 6.8 percent of students were identified as homeless that same year.
Other cities in South King County are dealing with similar challenges. Auburn and Renton, for example, also experienced jumps in poverty rates. School districts in both of these nearby cities had over 50 percent of students classified as low-income in 2011–2012.
As Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone write in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, what’s going on in South King County mirrors a national trend of rising poverty in the suburbs. This rise is being driven by population growth, the location of affordable and subsidized housing, immigration patterns, and the growth and decentralization of lower-paying jobs. But unlike central cities, which have grappled with poverty for decades, Tukwila and suburbs like it have a limited infrastructure to deal with rapid demographic and economic change.
Often it’s the little things that we don’t even think about. At Cascade View Elementary in Tukwila, the Seattle Times reported, “Cultural references must be consistently challenged: things like fire drills, underwear, curtains, even baseball, may have no parallel in the student’s culture.”
The larger risk is that many of these same low-income students will likely have trouble completing high school, let alone going on to earn two- or four-year degrees, or competing for the high tech jobs the region is known for. (Interestingly, employers in the region often fill these jobs by importing workers from outside the state or the country.)
But what’s different in King County is a unique collaborative model that is starting to make a dent in some of these challenges, and gain national notice from policymakers.
The Road Map Project is a region-wide effort aimed improving student achievement from “cradle to college and career” for students from seven school districts in South King County and south Seattle.
“The greater Seattle region has one of the best educated workforces in the nation,” said Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, the nonprofit that staffs the project. “We import highly educated talent from around the globe yet struggle to provide a solid education for the children in our own backyard. The children who grow up here deserve as good of an education as the people who show up here.”
The project aims to double the number of students who are on track to graduate from college and earn a career credential by 2020 and to close existing gaps that exist between low-income students of color and others.
Large-scale regional approaches like this one can be important models for other regions facing shared problems like educational attainment gaps. Jurisdictions that are used to competing for dollars and services will likely find there is a benefit to working jointly on a larger scale. Collaboration can help cover the fragmentation of services that often exists in suburban communities, and it can lead to better and more creative use of public and private dollars.
Of particular note is the project’s emphasis on using data to drive improvement and support collective action. Indicators range from being healthy and ready for kindergarten to the number of students who enrolled in postsecondary education by age 24. Work groups with representatives from the school districts, nonprofits, community colleges, mayor’s offices, and housing authorities meet regularly to track progress toward goals.
The project has had some early successes, most notably the receipt of a $40 million “Race to the Top” grant from the U.S Department of Education in 2012, which the seven Road Map Project districts applied for as a group. The project has also shown great increases in the number of eligible students who sign up for the College Bound Scholarship Program by the end of the 8th grade.
Dr. Edward Lee Vargas, superintendent of nearby Kent School District, said the project stands out because of the broad collective commitment in the region.
“Success at this scale is possible if, and only if, we all work together to place students and their future at the center of our decisions.”