How Washington’s superintendent of the year meets urban needs without urban services

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

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.

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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?

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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…

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