When Overlake student Kate Berry, 17, looks out over a sea of educators gathered at the United Nations today, she plans to tell them about...

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When Overlake student Kate Berry, 17, looks out over a sea of educators gathered at the United Nations today, she plans to tell them about the Hokey Pokey.

She’ll describe to the audience of 400 how the simple song and dance helped her and eight classmates connect with students in Pailin, Cambodia. And how her private college-prep school in Redmond made a dusty corner of the world thousands of miles away a better place by helping build a school.

It’s one way that community service has gone global at Overlake School.

“I hope people will see that international service isn’t impossible,” Berry said. “You don’t have to build a school and go visit it. You can find small ways that make a difference.”

Perched at the top of a hill overlooking Redmond Ridge, the 490-student school is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, making it one of the largest and oldest secular private schools on the Eastside. The school, for grades five through 12, has annual tuition of $20,385 — among the 10 most expensive private schools in the Seattle area.


Overlake School: www.overlake.org

Started in 1967 by Charles Clarke, a graduate of Seattle’s prestigious college-prep Lakeside School, Overlake moved to a sprawling ranch on Novelty Hill in 1972. Classrooms were renovated farm buildings, and rabbits and deer still make their home on campus.

Now, Overlake boasts a sprawling, wooded, 75-acre campus where students plop their heavy, laptop-laden backpacks outside the cafeteria without fear of theft.

About a third of its seniors have a 3.75 GPA or better, and all of its students go on to four-year colleges. About one in three applicants is admitted, said Francisco Grijalva, Overlake’s head of school.

But the focus isn’t just achievement and grades, Grijalva said.

Overlake history

The school was started in 1967 with 27 seventh- and eighth-graders in the rented Redwood Manor, in Redmond. In 1969 it moved to the Bellevue YMCA.

By 1971, the school’s 110 students had outgrown those facilities. The school purchased Tall Firs Ranch on Novelty Hill for $200,000. In September 1972, school started in classrooms renovated from farm buildings.

Community service is part of the school’s mission and part of its overall goal of making students “world citizens,” he said.

“We want academically capable youngsters who will participate in the activities we provide and bring something new and unique to the school,” he said.

Every year, the school requires students to spend a week learning something outside of the classroom. “Project Week” may include learning to scuba dive or trekking through the mountains, but like many of their public-school counterparts, students often focus on community service.

Or, in some cases, international service.

Recently, the school gained national attention for its help in building and supporting a public school in Pailin, Cambodia.

In December, a column in The New York Times looked at the pervasive problem of sex trafficking in Cambodia and how efforts like those at Overlake can help change that by giving Cambodian children an education. Then came the invitation to be part of a U.N. panel discussion on literacy at a conference on responding to children and youth in crisis. The event is being held by the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations, a group that works with the world body’s department of education.

“We didn’t do this [help build the school] for publicity,” Grijalva said. “We didn’t think about how this could stop trafficking. We wanted to provide an opportunity for education.”

Besides Overlake’s involvement with Pailin, other service projects students have embraced include helping repair homes in Appalachia and going to Nevada to learn about the Shoshone Tribe and its claim to native lands now used for gold mining.

This year students will travel to New Orleans to help Habitat for Humanity build houses.

“You can’t get this kind of an intimate global experience by booking a tour group online,” said Mark Schoening, who along with his daughter, Allison, 16, traveled with Overlake representatives to Pailin. “We’re big supporters of public schools. But we look at sending our children here as an extra advantage during a critical time in their adolescence.”

Overlake’s involvement with Pailin started in 2001, when Grijalva heard about a project to help build schools in Cambodia.

The school decided it was a worthy cause, and it started fundraising. Students raised money through talent shows and bake sales. Some students requested donations in lieu of gifts for birthdays or other occasions.

All told, the school raised $15,500, and along with a $14,000 matching grant from World Bank, Overlake School in Pailin was built.

In February 2003, Grijalva and a handful of students and teachers traveled to Pailin to see the school dedicated.

The Eastside’s Overlake continued to send about $2,000 a year to Pailin to pay the salary of an English teacher. But Grijalva wanted to keep the school and its students involved in Overlake’s namesake school.

In 2006, Grijalva and a dozen students, along with teachers and parents, spent six days in Pailin as part of Project Week. They brought with them six computers and paid to have electricity installed in the school. Before, the school had one computer powered by a solar panel, Grijalva said.

The students who took the trip still meet weekly and e-mail with the Pailin students. Many say they hope to go back.

And some may do so when the school organizes another trip next year. Grijalva hopes to help build a playground next.

While in Pailin, Eastside students and faculty helped teach classes and spent time getting to know their Cambodian classmates. One night, the Pailin school threw a party in honor of their guests. Pots of spicy curry were served, and the students taught each other native dances.

When the Eastside students’ turn came, they showed the Pailin students how to do the Hokey Pokey and the Macarena and sing the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” song.

“I’ve never been more happy in my life,” Berry said. “I wasn’t caring how I looked or what I was wearing. I was living for what was going on right then.”

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com