A Tacoma-born scholarship has created a new generation of leaders. It started in a garage

For Lauren Taylor, the 36-year-old principal at Manitou Park Elementary in South Tacoma, the road to her current leadership position, in many ways, started in an unexpected place: an old converted garage on Hilltop, where Anna Herron once stored a down Chevy Nova.

It was in this former garage where Taylor began to formulate her academic dreams and aspirations two decades ago. At the time, Herron operated the 7th Street Learning Center out of the blue building with white trim, providing tutoring and extra help to Hilltop school children. It’s also where Tim Herron, Anna’s husband and a Lincoln High School math teacher who launched the Act Six scholarship program, worked with the first cadre of scholarship recipients, preparing them for what was ahead.

Taylor was a high school kid at the time — a senior at Henry Foss — and had been selected as one of the first-ever recipients of the new scholarship, guaranteeing her a full ride to Whitworth University in Spokane. For a young student of color who grew up with plenty of challenges, including experiencing homelessness during middle school, it was an exciting and nerve-wracking time.

“I knew that I wanted to go to college, so I went through high school with that in mind, but I didn’t really know what it meant,” Taylor said.

Tim Herron knew. As a teacher, he’d learned that students like Taylor needed more than just money for tuition and books. To flourish in college—a place that was foreign, far removed from life in Tacoma—they needed guidance before heading off to school and continued support once they arrived. He’d seen it firsthand at Lincoln, helping capable students — many of them the first in their families to pursue higher education — navigate the college-admission process only to return home without a degree and often significant debt, he said.

It’s the problem the Act Six scholarship program, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, which was designed to solve.

There was also a civic-minded ulterior motive: If Act Six could help kids from diverse backgrounds successfully earn degrees, the program also could help cultivate new leaders, some of whom would then return to their communities and make them stronger.

As Act Six celebrates two decades, it has grown from a small-time, Tacoma-based operation that originally worked with just a single college to one that has served more than 1,200 students from across the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, 90% of them students of color.

Taylor’s story, and the stories of other Act Six graduates, provides validation.

The program, which Tim Heron, 50, still oversees through the nonprofit Degrees of Change, has been wildly successful, more so than anyone could have foreseen.

“Looking at 20 years, and having been in the first cadre in Tim’s garage, I can’t say that I saw (Act Six) becoming what it is,” Taylor told The News Tribune. “There’s just this ripple effect of the lives that have been impacted.”

Taylor, who spent four years teaching in Tacoma before eventually becoming a principal at one of Tacoma’s most diverse elementary schools, isn’t alone. Across Tacoma and Pierce County, there are a number of Act Six graduates who have returned to the area, contributing in unique and profound ways.

Scholarship recipient Christian Paige is a spoken word poet and educator who grew up in Tacoma’s South End and earned a degree from Trinity Lutheran College in 2015 before returning to town. Part of the reason for the Act Six program’s success is the sense of family and community it creates, Paige said. Each cadre of Act Six scholars comes together for months of preparation before leaving for school, and more importantly none of them head off alone. The Tacoma-Pierce County Act Six program works with five local universities — including Pacific Lutheran, Saint Martin’s and Gonzaga — and every year each of the schools admit a small group of Act Six students, ensuring that they’ll have a support group to lean on.

Paige, 29, recalled learning of the Act Six program in high school, from a basketball coach. Like Taylor, he’d always known he wanted to attend college, he said, but he also knew paying for it would be a challenge. At the time, he figured earning an athletic scholarship was his only option.

Being introduced to the program and receiving an Act Six scholarship “changed the trajectory” of Paige’s life, he said.

“My parents never wanted to put a damper on the dream, but the reality is … nobody in my neighborhood had $50,000 laying around to pay for college every year,” Paige said. “I think the biggest benefit was being able to go to a new place that feels scary with people you know and who have your back, who also have similar shared and lived experiences.”

Athaliah Ioame is a recent graduate of Washington High School in Parkland. She’s also a member of the latest cadre of Act Six scholars, preparing to attend Whitworth University this fall — the same school Taylor attended.

Ioame is eager, she said, and grateful for the support Act Six and her fellow scholarship recipients will provide throughout her college career.

“Right now I feel nervous, but I’m very determined and I’m confident because I have such a strong support system,” Ioame said.

Tim Herron has now watched the scholarship program he started from his Hilltop garage grow into one that now has offices in seven cities across the country, having sent off 180 cadres of students to nearly 20 colleges.

Success stories like Taylor and Paige, he said — and Ioame’s nervous excitement — underscore how important this work is, while also illuminating how crucial it is to provide students from non-traditional college backgrounds with the support they need to be successful.

Twenty years later, he still recalls the first group of Act Six scholars, including Taylor, hunkered down in that old garage.

“When I think about what community transformation looks like, it looks like a principal at an elementary school who has the lived experience that many of her kids have,” Tim Herron said.

“In some ways, there are hundreds of Lauren stories now.”