Finding focus of Future Ready | Katherine Smith

Ever since I was first introduced to the Tahoma School District’s Future Ready initiative last year I have struggled with it. At times I have found myself thinking it sounds great and at others I’ve been completely frustrated as I have sifted through it and tried to find what precisely the message is.

When talking about educational choices it’s easy for me to get defensive of my own. It’s part of my bias, and I realize that. My worldview tells me that knowledge is power, education is life changing, and it is about more than mere dollars and cents.

I couldn’t count the number of times my educational choices have been belittled over the past three years. In the time since I graduated from college I have often been the recipient of the pity sigh. You know, the, “Oh, you have a journalism degree.” It usually is accompanied by the virtual yet implied, “You’re cute honey, what a waste of money,” head pat. I have been told that my degree is worthless. This, coming from those who have never worked in or studied the industry, sets my teeth on edge.

Ever since I was first introduced to the Tahoma School District’s Future Ready initiative last year I have struggled with it. At times I have found myself thinking it sounds great and at others I’ve been completely frustrated as I have sifted through it and tried to find what precisely the message is.

Let me back up for just a moment. Last week I participated in the district’s Future Ready Café. The café was a chance for community members to come together and talk about the district’s outcomes and indicators as they related to the Future Ready initiative. The group included teachers, administrators, parents, businessmen and women, city council members, leaders within the Maple Valley-Black Diamond Chamber of Commerce, and current Tahoma High students to name a few.

The district’s outcomes and indicators are a combination of skills and traits that, when combined together and mastered, the district believes they give students the tools needed to be successful. Things like being a complex thinker, an effective communicator, a community contributor, etc., etc.

At the café, participants were assigned three table numbers. Those numbers represented groups with which you would discuss different questions: what about the outcomes and indicators work, what is missing, and how can they be changed to help students compete in a global economy, respectively. These questions, I felt, led to some really interesting conversations. Hearing from so many different people who brought their own worldviews and ideas was fascinating. I especially appreciated talking with two current Tahoma High students, Alyssa and Dakota.

That said, I think that the message and focus of the Future Ready initiative can be confusing and unclear. And that’s something I felt was reflected somewhat in the questions asked and the conversations that resulted. It can go so many different directions the heart of the message can get lost in the noise.

Now, on the surface, it seems fairly straightforward. A mission statement crafted by a committee last summer reads, “Together provide the tools and experiences every student needs to create an individual, viable and valuable path to life-long personal success.”

Simple enough, right? Simple to say at least. Carrying it out is another matter.

At the café Superintendent Mike Maryanski spoke and gave a brief overview of the district’s focus and approach to learning over the years, and an overview of Future Ready. Maryanski quoted district statistics that say that 60 percent of the district’s graduates go on to a two-year or four-year program, while 40 percent do not. A 40 percent that there is no good system in place to track, currently.

“If you want to go to a four year school, Tahoma High School will prepare you,” Maryanski said.

Maryanski was also quick to say that Future Ready isn’t an anti-college movement.

What all of that says to me is that Future Ready is, in large part, about helping the 40 percent be prepared for where they do go whether it is a technical school, the military, or straight to the workforce.

If the district feels that those who go to college are well prepared, then it is with the other 40 percent that they think they can improve. It also stands to reason then, that it is with that 40 percent in mind that we should have been analyzing the outcomes and indicators as we discussed the evening’s questions.

Not every student will go to college, and not every job requires a college degree. How does the district help those students be prepared for their path?

But, the discussion of the role of college in students’ futures is where it gets complicated.

In the week prior to the café, participants were provided with a selection of reading material from a variety of sources on the educational and job prospects of Millennials. This reading was mostly anti-college.

General attitudes included were that, as a generation, we are overeducated and overqualified, that college is too expensive and that the dollars and cents don’t pencil out.

I think the point, which Maryanski did speak to briefly at the café, was to challenge the worldview — Maryanski called it a mental model — that every student should go to college.

A favorite statistic of district administration over the past year — and that was quoted at the café — has been that one in two new college graduates are un- or underemployed. That stat was printed in Education Week, a K-12 educational news source published by the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, in April 2012. There are many factors that go in to such a situation. Personal drive and work ethic, educational decisions, internships, networking, the Great Recession….

All of this has also been a prominent part of the Future Ready conversations and as such was also at the café.

How much of all this is the responsibility of K-12 education? I think the bigger idea the district is trying to tackle is how to give students the knowledge and skills base to be successful no matter what they choose to do. Not shaming them for the choices they make. That they have a goal and have a solid, realistic knowledge of what it will take to achieve that goal. Or, should the goal change, that they know how to find information and go through that process.

All of that stands to get lost in the noise if the focus isn’t clear.