Collaborating with the community

SU faculty working with Neighborhood House on early childhood development research

Neighborhood House Group Shot
Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2010-02-22

Seattle University has received a $68,000 grant from the Better Way Foundation to launch a community-based research project with Neighborhood House Head Start. A team of six SU faculty are now working with Neighborhood House staff to identify research questions that address both the assets and needs of early childhood development programs at the Head Start childhood center, which is located at Yesler Terrace. 

Research for a Strong Start, as the project is officially named, opens a new chapter in SU’s longstanding relationship with Neighborhood House. The project is notable in many ways.

For one, it is incredibly interdisciplinary. The research team includes principal investigator Bonnie Bowie (College of Nursing), Mary Kay Brennan (social work, Arts and Sciences), Saheed Adejumobi (Global African Studies, Arts and Sciences), Sam Song (Education), Claire Garoutte (Fine Arts, Arts and Sciences) and Danuta Wojnar (Nursing). 

The research itself is still coming into focus—and that’s very much by design. The team is being very deliberate about taking their cue from Neighborhood House. “It’s very important that we not come into the community and tell them what to do,” says Bowie. Rather, the SU faculty and their Neighborhood House partners are now going through a period that Bowie likens to courtship. “They’re educating us about the families that use their services,” she says. “We’re asking them, how we can use our assets to assist you to achieve your goals.”  

Already, though, some themes are coming to the fore. Such as: How do you engage immigrant and refugee parents? What particular needs does the Somali community in Seattle have?  What does a successful professional development program for pre-school educators look like? What does culturally competent early education look like? What happens when they enter the Seattle Public Schools and how can we help to bridge that transition?  How can we raise awareness among the public and policymakers regarding early education needs? 

Wherever their study ultimately leads, Bowie and her team are intent on creating something that “really meets the needs of our community partner in a sustainable way.” She says the group has benefited from the counsel of sociology faculty Mako Fitts and Gary Perry, who both have extensive experience in community-based research projects.  Another key element of the project is its relationship to the Seattle University Youth Initiative , which is emerging as a more robust structure and vision for the university’s community outreach efforts. Kent Koth, director of the Center for Service and Community Engagement, who is leading the Youth Initiative through its current phase of development, says, “The research findings of Bonnie and her colleagues will guide the strategy and implementation of the proposed Youth Initiative, particularly in the area of early childhood development.”

Koth also sees the team’s work as replicable. “The project will provide a powerful model of an interdisciplinary team of faculty working on research that has direct relevance to our community partners,” he says. “This is something that we hope will occur more and more as the Youth Initiative begins.”

Bowie credits Jane Spalding (director of foundation and corporate relations) and Barbara Dolby (associate director, corporate and foundation relations) as well as Mary Kay Brennan for their roles in making the proposal to the Better Way Foundation. The proposal, Spalding says, grew out of the university’s hosting of the 2008 Opus Prize (the Better Way Foundation is a part of the Opus Philanthropy Group).

The Better Way Foundation, for its part, “was very impressed with Seattle University’s proposal,” says Karen Muller, senior advisor of the Minnesota-based foundation. “Seattle U’s plan brought together a faculty team from very diverse disciplines committed to working together in a collaborative way with a committed local partner, Neighborhood House. Additionally the foundation was impressed with both the internal university commitment to community based research and the external setting of a city like Seattle already committed to early childhood development.  All the necessary elements seem to be in place for exciting results.”


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