Learning to Fail Forward

TAF brings the transformational power of STEM to educators and students of color.

5 min read

For more than two decades, Seattle-based TAF (Technology Access Foundation) has been bringing project-based STEM opportunities to students of color through culturally responsive practices and student-led learning. “Decolonizing public education. That’s the core of what we do,” TAF Co-founder and Executive Director Trish Millines Dziko says. “And it’s done through our model of STEM to transform schools. So from top to bottom, sideways—every which way—the TAF partner school communities are equitable with kids prepared to go to the next level.” 

Dziko, a computer scientist who began working in tech in the late 1970s, says there was no such thing as STEM education when TAF launched in 1996. “Our mission was to bring technology to communities of color. That’s it,” she recalls. “When we started, for a long time, a good ten, 12 years, we were the only game in town. We would get calls from all over from people wanting to know how we did what we did.” 

With the central goal of eliminating race-based disparities in student achievement, TAF began by developing afterschool programming for teens to provide technical training so they could get paid at summer internships at Seattle-area tech companies.  

In 2008, TAF launched a STEM-centered public neighborhood school, TAF Academy, in conjunction with Federal Way Public Schools. Using learnings from TAF Academy, the team developed its project-based, student-led model, STEMbyTAF. The STEMbyTAF Model is the foundation for school transformation. Schools within our network who utilize the model educate more than 2,000 students in grade K through 12 in districts throughout the Puget Sound region, including Boze Elementary School in Tacoma, WA, and TAF@Saghalie in Federal Way, WA. This school year, TAF expanded their network partnerships to Seattle Public Schools and the Highline School District.   

TAF provides a safety net for teachers and students to fail forward and know they are ultimately secure as they learn and grow. Equity is our foundation.

Heather Lechner, Executive Director of Education

Executive Director of Education Heather Lechner says, ”TAF provides a safety net for teachers and students to fail forward and know they are ultimately secure as they learn and grow. Equity is our foundation.” Lechner continues. “If we are truly actualizing our courage and our leadership, we are positioning all students to be the teachers of each other and the teachers of us. And getting out of the way for them to do that.” 

By creating a safe place to try and fail, TAF has created a process where engagement, learning, and innovation can happen. “If you are too afraid to fail, then in many ways, you'll be too afraid to innovate and create a different world,” Lechner says.

If you are too afraid to fail, then in many ways, you'll be too afraid to innovate and create a different world.

Heather Lechner, Executive Director of Education

Across programs, TAF is also working to create a culture of mutual support. “We’re not trying to outdo each other and compete against each other,” Dziko says. “We’re teaching kids to help each other be their own best selves. Our society says the fittest moves forward, and it’s created all kinds of ills in our country. The only way we reverse that is if we teach kids there are different, cooperative, ways to live, work, and learn.” 

In addition to students, TAF brings its culture of failing forward to training educators. “Our number one job is to support the educators who are on the ground with our kids,” Dziko says. TAF’s transformation coaches are at the front line, fostering student engagement and teacher development that is customized to meet the needs of different school sites and communities. “What professional development looks like at a high school may be very different than an elementary school,” Lechner says. “Our professional development is responsive to the schools and the communities we serve based on data that we track.” 

TAF’s process for identifying new school partners for its STEMbyTAF Model includes a number of set criteria. For example, partner school populations should be at least 70% kids of color, or at least 40% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. “We know where there’s a majority of kids of color. We know where the need is,” Dziko says. After a series of early conversations with school superintendents, TAF hosts site visits and listens to specific community needs. 80% of teachers must vote to approve TAF’s partnership before a new school implementation begins.  

“We were able to be a little bit more nimble and pivot quicker than many when the pandemic began,” Lechner says. The pandemic provided TAF with an opportunity to improve practices that can continue when schools resume in-person learning, including reconfiguring their virtual learning model. 


Another new opportunity for increased engagement includes leaning into each student’s family and community. “Right now, it’s stressful for kids to be at home with families, and for families to help facilitate the learning that’s happening,” Lechner says. Yet Lechner also observed that throughout the pandemic, teacher and parent communication has “probably has never been greater.” She explains, “it might just because the parents needed help logging their kids onto a learning platform, but that is a point of contact that didn't exist before. In some ways, it’s low hanging fruit for teachers to begin to partner and build this environment for students.”  

For TAF, building networks rooted in relationships happens by spreading learning wider rather than faster. “You can’t cause learning. We’re not vendors. We’re not swooping in and swooping out,” Dziko says. “We build relationships with the schools in our network and the people that support those schools. That’s what makes the entire difference. Because now they are our children and our teachers as well.” 

Bezos Family Foundation is proud to support the expansion of TAF’s school transformation work through the development and implementation of the STEMbyTAF Transformation Coaching Model.