Investing in Our Youth and in the Future

Seattle University Youth Initiative making a difference in education

Written by Annie Beckmann
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
January 16, 2014

The lure of the Seattle University Youth Initiative is compelling—so much so that an increasing number of incoming students say it’s a top reason they choose to come here.

Take Meghan Kennedy, ’15, who did a heap of research on colleges as a high school student in Sacramento, Calif. She knew she wanted a Jesuit education, yet when she checked out websites to see how each university stacked up, SU was the clear frontrunner. Kennedy was particularly inspired by the Center for Service and Community Engagement and the Youth Initiative, which was just starting to take shape at the time.

“Seattle University was the standout, not just for its mission but for having a well thought out program in the Youth Initiative to carry out that mission,” says Kennedy.

Rachel Williams, ’15, from Reno, Nev., says she, too, was drawn to SU because of the Youth Initiative—now in its third year—a long-term commitment to create a pipeline of support for neighborhood children and their families.

Says Williams, “After seeing so many schools boast about new gyms, popular sports teams and acceptance rates, seeing a school that was bragging about a well- designed, student-powered plan to make good on the promise of social justice and service made me think hard about SU.”

This is the university’s largest-ever community engagement project focused on improving academic achievement for youth in the square-mile neighborhood that includes Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. Gatzert is the first focal point of the Youth Initiative, which also encompasses Washington Middle School and Garfield High School.

Those who shape and propel the Youth Initiative underscore that it’s a fitting reflection of the university’s Jesuit values and mission. Just ask President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., what excites him most about his presidency in this decade. Without hesitation, he’ll say the Youth Initiative.

“The Youth Initiative represents what I believe will be one of the most significant efforts in the history of our university and expands on the mission of a Jesuit Catholic university,” Father Sundborg says.

Since its official launch in early 2011, the Youth Initiative is lauded as visionary, collaborative and empowering for this Central District neighborhood. In 2011–12, Gatzert Elementary had the highest academic growth rate of any school in Seattle, a testament to its impact.

The idea for the initiative began when a member of SU’s Board of Trustees spoke with and inspired President Sundborg to develop an action plan to improve possibilities and outcomes for underserved children in public schools. That was 2007. The hope was that it would expand and deepen campus engagement in the neighborhood.

Start small, build a shared vision with the community and plan measurable objectives. That’s how Kent Koth, the Youth Initiative’s driving force, framed its development between 2008 and 2010. Koth, the even-keeled and down- to-earth pragmatist who leads both the Seattle University Youth Initiative and SU’s Center for Service and Community Engagement, knew he didn’t want this to grow too big too fast.

There were compelling reasons to start with the neighborhood a few blocks south of SU. At Gatzert, 94 percent of students receive subsidized lunches, the highest percentage in the Seattle School District and an indicator that families here are at or near poverty level. For many, English isn’t their first language, which can intensify learning and parenting challenges. At Gatzert alone, 30 different languages and 71 dialects are spoken by students and their families. Neighborhood residents are 43 percent white, 25 percent Asian or Asian American, 22 percent African or African American and 10 percent Latino.

Greg Imel, Gatzert’s principal, points to the Youth Initiative’s influence and impact within just a couple of years.

“In a very short period of time, Gatzert Elementary School’s staff and children have been able to experience the benefits of having coordinated efforts from students, staff and programs of Seattle University’s Youth Initiative,” Imel says. “We continue to be excited about the collective impact we will have on the lives of the children and their families through our stellar partnerships.”

Proof points of the initiative’s success already are evident. For instance, SU, in collaboration with five local nonprofits, extended the school day at Gatzert by two hours for 180 students. That’s almost 20 percent more time per student per year. The fact that an after-school science program for fifth graders has had a positive impact on science test scores is one sign of the achievements these collaborations accomplish.

As part of the initiative, SU’s Redhawk Academic Mentors offer one-on-one tutoring and learning support to sixth graders at Washington Middle School, where Principal Jon Halfaker says SU students serve as role models.

“College students can have a huge impact on middle schoolers. And getting our students to college is one of our goals, not just here but district-wide,” says Halfaker. “To make that happen, our students need to be able to see what that looks like.”

SU students who participate in service learning also find many rewards. Chris Caculitan,’13, himself a graduate of
 Washington Middle School, coordinates the Redhawk mentors there. He’s quick to say it was service learning at SU
 that opened his mind to new ways to develop and make use of his leadership skills. Current student Kennedy suggests service learning enriches one’s spirituality.

“SU taps into how college students today want to experience spirituality. With the Youth Initiative, SU does that in a very progressive way,” she says.

Faculty members play a vital role in the development and progress of the Youth Initiative. With the new Core curriculum, a goal of enriching and expanding service learning is beginning to draw more faculty to add service components and connect their course development with Youth Initiative partners. And in 2011– 12, a Youth Initiative faculty community-based research fellowship program began.

An ever-growing number of community organizations are enthusiastic about becoming Youth Initiative partners.

In addition to SU students, faculty, staff and alumni, the Seattle School District, the City of Seattle, foundations, faith communities and families, the initiative has 70 partners and 47 distinctive campus community projects to help children succeed in school and in life.

 The Youth Initiative and its partners continue to expand services such as health education, financial literacy, citizenship tutoring, tax assistance, employment opportunities, parent engagement workshops and more.

Another gauge of achievement: SU is a respected model for how higher education can approach community engagement. High-level delegations from universities in the U.S. and around the world—20 and counting—have clamored to know more and look to SU’s initiative as a successful prototype.

The notion of SU as a community-based university with a mission not detached from its own neighborhood is what captivates the imagination of Michael McCarthy, S.J., a current member of SU’s Board of Trustees.

Father McCarthy is among numerous leaders from universities—including Pacific Lutheran, Ohio State, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara and others as far flung as England, Germany, Canada, China and Nicaragua—who see merit in creating similar initiatives.

He says he shares insights gained from SU with Santa Clara, where he is both Edmund Campion University Professor and executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education.

“I developed a strategic plan that included a priority ‘engaging a neighbor’ whose inspiration was what I saw SU doing. We are calling this the Thriving Neighbors Initiative and are in the process of looking for a place where we can have a center of engagement called Comunidad Arrupe,” Father McCarthy says.

In Tacoma, Pacific Lutheran University’s long-range planning committee sees PLU’s role and connection in the local community as a cornerstone to PLU’s future. According to Joel Zylstra, PLU’s director of community engagement and service, his university is especially interested in how SU approached the development of the Youth Initiative.

“Seattle University is on to something big,” says Zylstra. “The Youth Initiative underscores the original role of higher education in America as the university informs and is informed by the concerns and opportunities of society.”

The Youth Initiative continues to collect prestigious awards and recognitions as well. In 2012 and again last year, the White House honored SU with presidential accolades for community service, calling out the initiative’s long-term commitment to build a better future for young people starting with pre-kindergarten and continuing through college. 

For both 2013 and 2014, U.S. News and World Report ranked SU a leader for service learning. Washington Monthly, in its 2013 College Guide, assesses how well universities serve their communities and the country and ranked SU in the top 10 among master’s universities on a national scale.

What is it about this commitment to Seattle youth and families that is so compelling? The answers are in the dedicated participants, be they third graders at Gatzert who boldly call themselves “The Incredibles” or a tutor from SU who listens well and energizes students.

Julie Thornton, a single mom whose daughter Aidyn has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can’t say enough about how the Youth Initiative’s after-school programs
at Gatzert make a difference in Aidyn’s self-esteem and her focus.

“She’s always treated with respect and a strong set of consistent boundaries. With that routine and structure, it’s up to her to do what’s required of her. Her tutor really understood her and the way her brain moved,” says Thornton, adding that the lack of homework meltdowns has improved the quality of their home life immeasurably.

Parents aren’t always aware of some of the challenges facing child educators. Summer learning programs, for example, are essential to a young person’s academic and social development. In 2013, SU partnered with eight local organizations to involve nearly 300 neighborhood children and youth in summer learning, including kindergarten orientation, reading and math skills, middle school and high school transitions, media arts and college readiness.

Over the summer, at-risk youth typically lose two months or more knowledge than what’s retained by middle or higher income children, according to Cicily Nordness, an SU alumna who directs youth services for Catholic Community Services, the largest social service organization in Washington.

“Reading loss, especially, is really high. So we continue to enhance our summer programming,” says Nordness, who earned her Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership in 2009. Summer programming has doubled the number of hours and the number of children served in the past year.

Organizations that play roles in the Youth Initiative draw on each other’s strengths and fill gaps rather than just provide more services, according to Nordness. “We strengthen our shared vision, which allows us to have more individuals to plug into this in exciting ways we haven’t even imagined yet,” she says.

Today, Koth is pleased with the growth and successes of the Youth Initiative.

“We are seeing very positive results,” Koth says, “but there is much more to be done. In the next few years we will continue to expand our academic and co-curricular partnerships. We will particularly focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, summer learning and support for families, nonprofits and small businesses that are the fabric of the neighborhood.”

You know Koth takes pride in how the initiative continues to flourish when he describes one of his favorite ways to find inspiration. He’ll hop on his bike, breeze the few blocks south from his office to Gatzert Elementary and drop in on an SU student who’s tutoring a kindergartner. He’ll recall how his own career began—as a tutor. He’ll think of his family and how the opportunities of his children contrast with those of Gatzert students. Then he’ll smile when he realizes it’s quite late in the afternoon, yet the pair in front of him remains resilient, energetic and completely tuned in to learning as a way to achieve success in life.

“That’s the real magic,” Koth says.
Volunteers are making a difference in the lives of students at Bailey Gatzert Elementary.
Teaching and technology: SU students volunteer in the computer lab at Bailey Gatzert.
Many SU students spend time with Bailey Gatzert students working on reading and writing skills.