The Technology Access Foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend. In two decades, 4,100 students in the Seattle area have learned about science, math and engineering through TAF programs or its school.
The students inside a portable classroom in Kent last week looked more like very-young workers at a tech company than sixth-graders studying the parts of a cell.
Most were dressed in business casual clothing — no T-shirts on “dress for success Thursdays” at their school — and they were all gathered around tables, putting the finishing touches on their presentations that describe different parts of a cell by comparing them to other items. On one poster, a cell wall is compared to a brick wall, a vesicle is like a mail truck.
Because they’re students, their materials are colored paper, markers and glue, rather than intricate PowerPoints. Still, they’ll be judged on their research and the creativity of their ideas. As they prepared, bits of paper fell to the floor and markers slid off the desks.
“It’s messy, but this shows learning,” said teacher Carlito Umali.
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Twenty years ago, the organization that helped found their school opened its doors, first offering after-school classes aimed at getting more students of color into tech fields such as science, math and technology. Since then, more than 4,100 students have taken part in Technology Access Foundation (TAF) classes, whether after school, in partnership with existing public schools or at these students’ school, the TAF Academy, a 6-12 grade school that opened in 2008.
The foundation hopes to serve as a model for STEM education, said Trish Millines Dziko, a TAF co-founder who left Microsoft in 1996 to start the nonprofit. Dziko spent 15 years in the tech industry, and was a founding member of Blacks at Microsoft, the first diversity organization sponsored by the Redmond company.
“I feel like we have done some pretty amazing stuff for a small organization,” Dziko said. “We wanted to do something very good and build on it. We had the after-school program, and we built on it with this school. And we’ve built community, which is very important to us.”
The original plan was to open five schools, including one in Seattle. But philanthropic funds started going to charter schools after voters passed a charter-school initiative in 2012, and some Seattle district officials questioned the idea of having TAF have a say in one of their public schools. But TAF found a willing partner in Federal Way Public Schools, and the TAF Academy became the first public school in the state to be co-founded with a nonprofit. The district was excited to provide the new opportunity for students, and since then the school and district have collaborated well, Federal Way Deputy Superintendent Dani Pfeiffer said.
About 300 students attend the tuition-free neighborhood school, which is housed in a row of portables on the grounds of Totem Middle School. Sophomore Rhandi Rosemond, 15, of Renton, started at the TAF Academy as a ninth-grader after going to the TAF after-school program.
“Middle school wasn’t challenging,” she said. “Here, they hold you accountable.”
At TAF Academy, students not only learn about STEM, they also complete job shadows or internships, and, leaders hope, go on to colleges and successful careers. The school now has a 95 percent graduation rate, and every student who graduated last year went on to college. Test scores are higher than the district average.
In her time at TAF, Rosemond has learned Japanese and worked on a documentary about social justice and police brutality. Paras Singh, 15, of Federal Way, started as a sixth-grade student, thinking he wanted to be an athlete. Now, he wants to be an architect. He’s working on creating a 3D-printed beehive, which he says will be safer and more efficient for beekeepers than a regular hive. He’s working with Gabriel Diaz, a teacher in the school’s engineering and design lab, which has a 3D printer and laser cutter.
“Kids are capable of this type of work,” Diaz said. “They just need the opportunity.”
TAF Academy also partners with other public schools to spread its project-based approach to education. Boze Elementary in Tacoma, for example, became a STEMbyTAF transformation school, where TAF instructional coaches worked with Boze teachers to develop projects and build partnerships with community organizations and area businesses.
At the TAF Academy, teacher Umali says students learn social skills and build confidence through doing projects.
“It’s not book work, it’s life work,” he said. “We get them to think about their future.”
Next year, up to 800 students will be able to enroll in the Academy. That’s because TAF will be moving from the portables into Saghalie Middle School in Federal Way, which will become TAF at Saghalie. The school will use the TAF model, but will also have sports teams, a mascot and fight song.
Last week, as TAF Academy students walked from one class to another — there are no bells, because there aren’t bells in college or at professional companies — Dziko greeted students who stopped to say hello or give her a hug.
She’s proud of the school’s graduation rate and test scores — and the individual students’ stories. There’s too many students she’s proud of to name them all, she said. There’s the one who came from a refugee family and now is in the University of Washington honors program. And the one whose teachers noticed was acting funny. They found out his dad was coming home from prison and worked with him to make sure he got through the year and graduated.
“That’s the stuff I’m proud of,” she said.