The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative Update

Is it possible to transform an entire school district so that every child has school success? The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative (TWCI) is a 10-year partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the University of Washington, and their goal is sustainable school transformation.

We first posted about the TWCI two years ago here. We checked in with Greg Benner, Ph.D., professor and Executive Director of the UWT Center for Strong Schools to see how the project is progressing.


The TWCI is mid-way into the fourth year, but some schools are in cohorts that are just beginning the process of transformation. The TWCI will include making change happen for the schools, the community at large and individual families. Dr. Benner says, “This approach is unprecedented because we are using it in neighborhood and community settings.”

So how does it work?

Shift 1 is school change

Parents and teachers say that they want to change the system because it’s not working. Teachers report that they have a lot on their plate and they feel spread thin. Initiatives are proposed but they don’t stay long enough to work.  Researchers with TWCI saw the need to create an infrastructure that makes real change possible.

In the first year of TWCI, the team took inventory of all the initiatives the school district was using and found 480 separate initiatives. This huge number of initiatives created a system that was destined to fail. Instead, the team focused on choosing only 10 high-yield initiatives, and made a plan to stick with them, district-wide.

A representative district leadership team was formed to investigate: what are the key things we need to do? They had input from the Center for Strong Schools at U of W and people who’ve created strong organizations like Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks.

Each school must elect to participate in TWCI. After making presentations at the school and giving everyone an understanding of the TWCI, the school staff votes. They must have 90% of staff to vote yes in order to participate.

Once a school has elected to join the TWCI, they assemble a building leadership team that moves forward with implementation. Teachers and staff are given training in social-emotional learning, trauma-driven practices, restorative practices, and positive behavior support.

Dr. Benner says, “We need to create safe, equitable, positive, engaging learning environments first and then we can move towards meeting academic needs.”Self_Management_02-13-018

Shift 2 is community change

Why does the TWCI reach out to the community? In the Tacoma Public School District, 70% of kids in district are low-income, and half of kids have had four or more adverse childhood experiences. “Trauma is the norm in Tacoma,” says Dr. Benner. “Kids are in the community 2/3 of the time. It’s public health prevention city-wide,” says Dr. Benner.

Community partners like the Boys and Girls Clubs and law enforcement will be provided the same trainings that are given in the schools in social-emotional learning, trauma-driven practices, restorative practices, and positive behavior support.

One community partner is the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound. They offered summer learning programs focused on TWCI that included PBIS and academics. The University of Washington did an evaluation and found that this program is closing academic gaps in reading. They also found substantial increases in social-emotional learning.  The study compared kids who participated in the summer program to other kids who didn’t get activities like that. They found that there’s a social-emotional slide over the summer, just like with reading. Boys and Girls Clubs can reverse that slide, make a significant impact and close the gaps. It gives kids more confidence when they enter school in the fall. Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound is an exemplar for other community programs and they want to become a national model for other Boys and Girls Clubs.

In addition, all law enforcement officers will be trained over the next decade on positive interactions and defusing conflicts.

Shift 3 is family change

This shift will begin in six months. It will include educator home visits to learn about families and what their hopes and dreams are for their children. They will be using the “Reset Families” curriculum with ideas and strategies for parents.


Dr. Benner says, “The Initiative weaves together 1) implementation science (how we implement evidence-based practices and sustain them) and 2) evidence-based practices. These are: social-emotional learning, academic engagement, college readiness. They support the whole child. It’s a comprehensive and sustainable blueprint for school transformation.

“This initiative has actually attracted great administrators & teachers who want to be a part of it. That’s the opposite of how it’s been in Tacoma for years.”

If you’re planning to be at the North West PBIS convention 2016 in Portland, check out Dr. Benner’s presentation on the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative on  Thursday, Feb. 25th.

Part 1: Session 2 at 11:15 am

Part 2: Session 3 at 1:30 pm

Thanks to Adam Wendt and Dr. Greg Benner for the interview this article was based on.