The state’s new Superintendent of the Year — Frank Hewins — witnessed a rapidly changing district when he took the helm of Franklin Pierce Schools.

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Washington has a new state Superintendent of the Year, and it’s Frank Hewins, who for 30 of his 40 years in education has worked in the Franklin Pierce School District south of Tacoma.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

He took the helm as chief of that district— which has about 8,000 students — in 2007, the same year one of its two high schools was labeled a “dropout factory.” But the district’s overall graduation rate has since soared, to 85 percent last year. And ninth-grade course-failure rates — a key indicator of whether a student will ever graduate — have plummeted.

After the Washington Association of School Administrators announced the state award last week, Education Lab called Hewins to talk about his tenure at the district and what challenges remain. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does this recognition mean for you as a longtime fixture in Franklin Pierce Schools?

A: It means a great deal. In my 30 years here, things have changed. The demographics have changed pretty significantly. We became a majority-minority school district probably about 15 years ago. We were able to work through a lot of growing pains that I think some districts are just feeling now. We’ve been able to do some things to close the achievement gaps, particularly in high-school graduation rates. Our Latino and black students now graduate at higher rates than our white kids.

Q: A decade ago, about half of all students in your district qualified for free- or reduced-price lunches. Now it’s nearly 75 percent. How have you partnered with the wider community to help students living in poverty?

A: This may not be a problem of our creation, but we have to accept it as part of our work. We are in an unincorporated (part of Pierce County) so we have no other supports. We’re just one spot in the county, but we do have some local partners, particularly some faith-based organizations. They provide backpack meals for every school on every weekend. We’ve partnered with (dental offices) that do checkups and then broker services that some kids may need. We do work with the county health department on some of those things. We work in as many places as we can because we don’t have the infrastructure of a town or a city. We have a lot of urban needs, but we don’t have urban services.

Q: You mentioned that students of color are now graduating at higher rates than their white peers. That’s fairly unheard of in public schools, so how have you accomplished that? And how can other districts with rapidly changing demographics replicate that work?

A: Is there a magic formula or silver bullet on this stuff? No. It’s a lot of focus and hard work. We view our diversity as a strength. We have a pretty sophisticated system of supports for academic behavior and attendance. We’ve focused a lot of resources and training and time working to create safe and civil schools and (interventions to support positive behavior). We honestly have no choice because we are the largest employer in the community. We’re the largest restaurant, the largest transportation system, the largest parks and rec system.

Q: You previously told Education Lab that not enough of your graduates enroll in college or career-training programs. What are you doing to change that?

A: That’s exactly right. We got those graduation rates to the level that they are, but we are still lagging on making sure that (graduates) follow through with their plans. Just knowing the issue helps us focus more on the problem so that our counselors and advisers in the high schools are able to do some things, like what happens with summer slide … We’re also part of Pierce County Strong. That’s a coalition of Pierce County school districts working with higher education to make sure we have some of these processes in place. We’re also working on the financial side if that’s becoming a barrier. Is it a family issue? Is it their own fear of success? Whatever personal issues they may have, we’re trying to coalesce a lot of resources with a lot of different partners to address these things. We’re also exposing them to more than a college (or) university experience, looking at apprenticeships and other opportunities for technical certification or training.

Q: Considering the rise of graduation rates — not just in your district but across the state — should there be any concern about the value of the diplomas?

A: I laugh at that … The requirements for getting through high school today are double what anybody who graduated — I don’t care how many years ago — and I am adamant about that.