Seattle University has won a major national award for its work with the low-income neighborhood of Bailey Gatzert Elementary.

Share story

One day last week, Katrina Goodjoint sat in a tot-size chair and focused all of her attention on a fidgeting kindergarten student named Jamal.

Although the school day at Bailey Gatzert Elementary had ended more than an hour ago and Jamal was popping up and down in his seat, he kept his eyes glued to Goodjoint as the Seattle University senior turned over flash cards printed with letters of the alphabet.

“What letter is this?” she asked. Jamal’s eyes widened, mirroring the shape of the letter itself. “O!” he said.

“Good! And what sound does it make? Go ahead and write it.”

In the past year, Seattle University has flooded the Central District’s Bailey Gatzert — Seattle’s highest-poverty elementary school — with nearly 100 trained student volunteers. The college students help younger children with the most basic of skills and give them after-school enrichment in subjects such as science, chess, literacy and video production.

But that only scratches the surface of an ambitious initiative funded by the private university and aimed at everyone living in the Bailey Gatzert neighborhood. It includes health-care help from nursing students, legal help from law-school students, a full-time coordinator for the school’s many assistance programs, and staff and faculty support for many facets of the initiative.

On Monday, Seattle University will receive a top honor for doing so: the 2012 President’s Higher Education Community Service Award, the highest recognition the federal government gives to a college or university for commitment to volunteering, service-learning and civic engagement.

Seattle University’s long-term commitment to its Youth Initiative was launched a year ago, when the Jesuit school pledged to use $1 million in existing university funds to support the low-income neighborhood.

The primary focus of the university’s initiative is Bailey Gatzert Elementary, and after a year of help, “I couldn’t be more pleased,” said principal Greg Imel. “I think we’re going to see remarkable change with student achievement here.”

Before the initiative began, perhaps two dozen of Bailey Gatzert’s 400 students would get after-school help. Today, the school is a beehive of activity long after the school day ends, as about 100 elementary students are joined by dozens of college students for remedial work and a broad range of other programs.

There is also a program that teaches parents how to support their child’s education, and another that matches neighborhood preschoolers with university students for help on early reading skills.

“The kids are happier, they’re working harder,” said Bailey Gatzert head teacher Barbara Dixon.

The benefits run both ways.

Although Katrina Goodjoint is going to study law, not education — she’s been accepted to Georgetown University’s law school for this fall — the volunteer work she did at Bailey Gatzert and at the King County Juvenile Detention Center has influenced the trajectory of her career.

When she finishes law school, she wants to work on child-advocacy law, with a focus on the inequality in funding between rich and poor schools.

“It’s tough,” she said. “Some of them (the students) are so behind. I was working with a student today who didn’t know the alphabet — he can’t even recognize the letters.”

The Bailey Gatzert neighborhood is a significant contrast — and thus, an education — for university students, many of whom grew up in comfortable suburban neighborhoods, went to top high schools and now pay $32,400 a year in tuition.

Seattle University has long emphasized community service; more than 200 classes at the school require students to volunteer in the community, said Kent Koth, director of the university’s Center for Service and Community Engagement and also the Youth Initiative.

One of the purposes of the initiative is to let college students move beyond the isolated, intellectual experience of the classroom and learn how to put their knowledge to work in the community, said university President Stephen Sundborg.

Just down the hall from where Goodjoint tutored kindergarten students, Jordan Maier and a half-dozen other college students are helping fifth-graders construct foam cars powered by balloons. The after-school science club is run by Frank Shih, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. He’s also director of Seattle University’s Bannan scholars — students who are selected for academic achievement and a commitment to serve the community, and who are among the volunteers working at Bailey Gatzert.

“It’s fun to get off campus and engage with younger students,” said Maier, an electrical engineering and math major. “And they get really excited about science.”

Eddie Lincoln is the full-time Bailey Gatzert program coordinator, his salary paid by the university. He helps coordinate the university’s volunteer work, keeps tabs on which students need help and what kinds of help they need, and coordinates the services offered by a number of other nonprofits. He even makes sure the kids can get a bus ride home when after-school classes are over.

But “our biggest resource is the college students,” he said. “They’re going out on the front lines, doing the hard work, coming day in and day out.”

The community-schools movement is a small but growing national movement of schools aided by their communities, and one of the offshoots is university-assisted schools, said Jim Grim, co-director of the new Midwest Center for University-Assisted Community Schools at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Grim has been involved for 11 years at George Washington Community High School, another university-assisted school program in Indianapolis. “We believe the community-school movement is a way to address school reform with a holistic approach,” he said.

The Indianapolis high school had a graduation rate of 20 or 30 percent when it first opened but now graduates 77 percent of its students, and “100 percent are accepted to college,” Grim said. “It actually has changed the culture of the community.”

Bailey Gatzert has similarly tough statistics. Assessments show entering kindergartners lag about a year behind students elsewhere in the district, and 96 percent are on free- or reduced-price lunch — the highest percentage of any school in Seattle.

More than 40 students are from homeless families, living in shelters or sometimes even cars. Many are the children of refugees from Somalia and other countries, and their parents do not speak English.

Sally Haber, associate director for the university’s Center for Service and Community Engagement, noted that Seattle University students have been tutoring Bailey Gatzert students for 20 years. But the initiative has taken the work to a different level: “It’s a lot more intentional and focused.”

Bailey Gatzert is just four blocks from the university. Imel said he thinks it makes a lot of sense for the two to work together.

“As long as the integrity and trust keep growing, I think (the results are) going to be compelling,” he said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.