News: Collaboration & Partnerships

Tacoma Community Partners Ask Seniors, 'What’s Next?' Then Connect Them with Support

Monday, May 25, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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It will take a concerted effort from a lot of partners in communities across the country to keep the class of 2020 on track for a postsecondary pathway. With a new initiative, Tacoma, Washington, offers a model of what that effort can look like elsewhere.

In Tacoma, a city with population over 200,000, a number of those community partners, some of them NCAN members, are coming together to assist seniors from Tacoma Public Schools. That system serves about 30,000 students annually. “What’s Next TPS Senior Check-In” is a data-driven, collective impact initiative to get students the assistance they need through local high schools, college access programs, and colleges.

Four organizations are coordinating and mobilizing the “What’s Next” initiative: Graduate Tacoma, Degrees of Change, College Success Foundation, and Tacoma Public Schools. Graduate Tacoma is a collective impact effort that includes more than 295 community partners whose mission is to “build and strengthen Tacoma’s community-wide movement to help every child achieve success from cradle to college and career.”

“The [What’s Next TPS Senior Check-In] initiative began with a recognition that in the pandemic-driven school closures, our seniors are facing immense challenges, and the district has been working really hard to support seniors,” Tim Herron, chief executive officer of Degrees of Change, said recently in a video describing the initiative. “The supports students have traditionally received around deciding what their next steps are beyond high school, making choices about college or other options, have taken in some ways a backseat to just navigating the graduation process.”

Longtime readers may remember Degrees of Change from other college access and technology intersections like the National Student Clearinghouse data visualizer, the use of Zapier to connect different online services, and using “pulse check” surveys to keep up with their students enrolled in college. This new effort is similarly data-driven.

The process for helping students begins with understanding where they are, using an online check-in survey (estimated to take four to six minutes to complete) where students can quickly respond to how they’re thinking about their next steps, how COVID-19 has or hasn’t changed their plans, and to request help. (Ed. Note: Please do not fill out the survey unless you are a Tacoma Public Schools senior. Remember, clean data are good data!) The coordinators hope to drive every senior in Tacoma to one place.

The survey is simple and asks students to give information about:

  • Themselves.
  • Their postsecondary plans.
  • Which key steps they’ve taken (e.g., completing a FAFSA or WASFA).
  • Their top three colleges (if relevant).
  • If they’re able to join a scheduled virtual outreach event with seven local colleges.
  • Which kinds of college supports they need help with at this point.
  • Whether they are connected with any college access organizations at their school.
  • Does the student want help with any of the items they’ve listed?
  • Can the coordinators follow up, and can they share the student’s information with a partner?

Conducting a senior survey to collect all of this relevant information was one of five key actions to take right now recommended by NCAN in a recently released guide.

The workflow behind the survey helps to deliver the support to students. See the diagram above, which maps it out. Once data come in from the student, it is immediately available in an online portal where designated staff from high schools can see the responses from seniors at their school. From there, staff can download the data and work with them in real time so that they can then reach to students.

The images below show an overview dashboard by high school, a timeline of check-ins by high school, and an overall dashboard of students’ college plans and graduation concerns. High school names have been suppressed.



On the higher ed side, the coordinators have also made data available to all nine institutions located in Pierce County and every four-year institution in Washington. There’s a separate online portal for colleges to access the survey responses from students who flagged them on the survey.

The image below shows students’ status by postsecondary institution (names of institutions have been suppressed).

The third branch of the workflow involves seniors who participate in a school-based college access program. Students’ information is shared with the programs they indicate through the survey. These are programs that are already familiar with these students, and they’ll be able to provide primary support for students already participating in the program. In their own separate portal, they’ll be able to take notes in the portal and document the support that these students receive.

The diagram below shows workflow according to where students were flagged for their CBO (whose names have also been suppressed).

The survey asks students not participating in a school-based college access program if they want additional support. Programs in the Tacoma area have been pooling resources, and professional staff from these programs have been coming together to make themselves available to additional students.

Students who indicate they want support go to one of two match coordinators (shared between Degrees of Change and the College Success Foundation). Those coordinators match students with someone from the pool of college access staff. Those staff can then reach out to the students, indicate when they’ve done so, record the student’s response, and make any notes in the portal.

If a staff member doesn’t follow up, or the student doesn’t respond, then that information gets sent back to the match coordinator for additional follow-up and to ensure that all students who want support get it.

The support students receive focuses on navigating the college application, decision, and enrollment processes. These are the supports that students would typically receive in-person.

Students who are not headed to college also record that in the survey. That information also goes back to the high school, which is able to connect students to resources within the schools or available from other partners.

Although this process may look complicated, the majority of the workflow, including the survey, read-only portals, and basic analytics, was quickly built with an easy-to-use form-building service called FormSite, with no coding required. The more advanced dashboards and interactive portal used by the coordinators and pooled staff to track status and record notes (pictured below) were built on the Microsoft Power Platform, one of a growing set of platforms that provide no- and low-code environments to rapidly build interactive digital tools.

This is a workflow that other communities, schools, and stakeholders can emulate to better serve their own students.

The “What’s Next” initiative is a promising and exciting way to support students during this pandemic and beyond, but it is a heavy lift that is being made lighter through collaboration. Herron notes, “This has been a collaborative effort, and we know this is only going to work when we come together to support this year’s seniors in a really difficult environment.”

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