Tualatin not among top three finishers in America's Best Communities competition
Tualatin's dream run to the final round of the nationwide America's Best Communities competition came to a frustrating finish Wednesday afternoon, April 19, in Denver, as the city was not named among the three prize-winners.
Tualatin was left off the podium as country musician Vince Gill announced Huntington, W.Va., had won first place, with a $3 million prize, and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and Statesboro, Ga., won second and third places, with $2 million and $1 million prizes respectively.
The team from Tualatin — a collaborative effort between partners including the City of Tualatin, the Tigard-Tualatin School District, the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce, Mask & Mirror Community Theatre, Tualatin Tomorrow and the South Metro-Salem STEM Partnership — was the only entrant from Oregon, among about 350 initial competitors, to reach the finals.
The competition was cosponsored by Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel.
Steve Sandman, Frontier's director of operations for western Oregon, sent a message of encouragement via an email to members and supporters of the team and local media after the announcement was made on Wednesday.
"I know your first reaction must be disappointment, but don't be," Sandman wrote. "Look at what you have created for your community. Prize money aside, one of the goals of the ABC program was to pull communities together for the common good. You have done just that. While the hours of work you have put into this may not have resulted in prize money, the big winner in this remains your community. All of you did that and you should be proud."
Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden's message was similar.
"We are big winners with ABC," Ogden stated in an email. "The (cash) millions would have been great yet we have already won so much more than that. What you have built, the momentum all of you have generated, and where we are going from here is priceless."
Eight finalists were chosen last April in Durham, N.C., after applicants' "community revitalization plans" were judged. Tualatin received a $100,000 grant award for reaching the finals by presenting its plan to engage young students, especially those from underprivileged areas, in the scientific, technological, engineering, artistic and mathematical (STEAM) disciplines.
Earlier this year, Tualatin rolled out a "Mobile Makerspace," a converted trailer filled with gadgetry like a three-dimensional printer and a vinyl cutter. Outreach staff from the Tualatin Public Library have taken the trailer and some of the learning tools in it to local elementary schools and community events, teaching STEAM curricula. Drop-in Makerspace events have also been held at the library.
Ogden, Library Manager Jerianne Thompson and ABC Team Chairman John Bartholomew made their final pitch to judges in Denver on Wednesday afternoon, hours before the winners were announced.
"Nearly a third of our families enjoy a six-figure income, but almost a third of our families in Tualatin are at or near the national poverty line," Ogden said during the presentation. "So our revitalization plan wasn't simply a community revitalization plan. Our goal, our big idea, was to eradicate poverty in our community, changing lives and changing legacies for the future, and also to develop a model that could be implemented nationwide."
In Tualatin, like many communities in Oregon and elsewhere in the United States, families that speak Spanish at home are likelier to earn less in household income than English-speakers. Thompson noted that Hispanic or Latino students are less likely to have steady access to advanced science courses.
That's where the "Mobile" part of the Mobile Makerspace comes in, Bartholomew said.
"The mobility of our trailer equals accessibility, and accessibility equals equity," he said. The idea is that students of all races, native languages and income levels have the opportunity to succeed, he explained.
Thompson told a story about Makerspace staff going to Bridgeport Elementary School in east Tualatin to teach a science lesson about heating and cooling. Each student was issued a lab coat, just like real scientists, to their excitement. There were a number of parent volunteers helping out and working side-by-side with their children. The kicker: The lesson was taught in Spanish.
"Through the Mobile Makerspace's fun and engaging STEAM-based activities, we are seeing children grow their interest in STEAM subjects," Thompson said. "We hope that this, combined with our other projects, will keep them in the STEAM pipeline, leading to a locally skilled workforce that matches our local advanced manufacturing needs."
Before members of the Tualatin ABC team traveled to Denver this week for the presentation, they met with U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici on Monday at the Juanita Pohl Center in Tualatin.
Linda Moholt, the Chamber's chief executive officer, told Bonamici that it was actually a talk she heard the congresswoman give that inspired her to push for the Tualatin ABC team's focus on STEAM learning.
"I had just attended your presentation on STEAM education, and that is why we settled on STEAM," Moholt said. "So you get credit. You are responsible for us settling on STEAM."
Bonamici is a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. She is also a cofounder of the bipartisan congressional "STEAM caucus." She said she has seen the value of "hands-on learning" in her congressional district, which includes all of Washington County.
"You can see kids are engaged, and they're able to do something that's unique to themselves and to express their creativity — and all things that our business community wants: communication, innovation, new ways to solve problems," Bonamici said. "I've never had one business-owner say, 'I'm looking for a really good rote test-taker.'"
Although the Tualatin ABC team did not make the judges' final cut, it was not all for naught. Bartholomew said Monday the team has received $150,000 in total for advancing through the stages of the competition, along with more than $50,000 raised locally.
At a Tualatin City Council meeting last month, Moholt hailed the work the team has done in bringing STEAM education into the spotlight locally.
"If we go no further, we have come so far," she said of the America's Best Communities competition. "It truly has made a difference in our community."
Ogden said this week that when the City Council adopts a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, he expects it to allocate some funding for library staff to not only continue traveling to local elementary schools and events with the Mobile Makerspace and its resources — many of them donated or offered at a discount by local companies — but also establish a permanent Makerspace area at the library itself.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with quotes from a Frontier Communications official and Tualatin's mayor.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times