Five speakers, ranging from a former high-school dropout and prison inmate to a retired state Supreme Court justice, offered insight at a Seattle Times’ LiveWire event Wednesday.

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In a sometimes fervid discussion Wednesday, a Tacoma teacher, a youth advocate and a retired state Supreme Court justice laid bare the costs to society — and to students — when adequate funding for public education isn’t there.

Hundreds gathered at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall for the talk, a Seattle Times’ LiveWire event, that explored how investing in K-12 schools is linked to a mix of social issues, such as youth incarceration and unemployment rates.

In the talk titled “Set up to fail: The cost of not funding K-12 education,” Tacoma’s Lincoln High School teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling spotlighted the region’s economic disparities in terms of students’ access to a quality education, remarks to which the audience gave warm applause.

“You cannot sit and focus on the minutia of government and calculus when your stomach is churning,” he said, and some students are forced to choose between work and school.

Gibbs-Bowling, 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, previously taught in a high-income school, where he said the needs of those students contrast sharply with the ones of his students now.

In remarks before the panel, Omari Amili, a former dropout who went to prison for bank-fraud convictions, emphasized how a college education helped him. Amili now has a master’s degree from the University of Washington-Tacoma and works with other former inmates who want to transition to college.

Angel Gardner, Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate, shared her personal story, too. Born in the city’s Central District, Gardner was removed from her parents’ home as a child and grew up in foster care before aging out of the system at 18.

She then spent two years without a permanent place to live, a period during which judges chose her for the youth poet-laureate title.

Throughout the discussion, the panelists offered specific solutions to boosting students’ success, such as schools offering occupational training and extended school days.

They also emphasized the importance of how having stable housing and a strong family life can influence achievement and behavior.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, about 79 percent of Washington students in the class of 2016 graduated within four years. Nationally, the rate was 83 percent for the 2014-15 school year, the most recent data available.

Treehouse CEO Janis Avery said students’ success is so often shaped by caring adults around them.

“They need someone to see their promise,” she said, saying the “conveyor belt” to graduation success starts young.

Retired Justice Bobbe J. Bridge, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Children and Youth Justice, reiterated that point in terms of who winds up in court. She said schools oftentimes have the best opportunity to engage troubled youth in strong adult relationships.

More than half of the young people who commit crimes are dropouts, according to Columbia University researchers who looked at the economic impacts of the students. Dropouts are also more likely to be on welfare.

Bridge, who was a judge and state Supreme Court justice for nearly 20 years before stepping down in 2007, emphasized the collaboration of schools and other programs to make sure students’ basic needs get met.

“If they’re not engaged in the community,” she said of schools, “we’re going to be facing even worse situations from the standpoint of public safety, unemployment and disruption in communities than we have right now.”

Seattle Times education reporter Claudia Rowe moderated Wednesday’s forum, which was part of The Seattle Times’ LiveWire series that aims to bring together experts to discuss vital issues affecting the region.

Rowe is part of the newspaper’s Education Lab, a project that spotlights approaches to issues in public education.


Information in this article, originally published March 22, 2017 was corrected March 23, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Lincoln High School teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling previously worked. He said he worked in a high-income school in a neighborhood like Ballard in Seattle.