University Students Serve Local Low-Income Community

April 2, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

SEATTLE—For its Youth Initiative, a program involving university students serving the adjacent low-income community, Seattle University was honored this March with the Presidential Award for Community Service.

The program aims to increase the high-school graduation rate in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle by bringing university students into the neighborhood’s elementary school and beyond, according to Kent Koth, director of the Center for Service and Community Engagement & Seattle University Youth Initiative.

Close to 40 percent of the families in the neighborhood adjacent to the university are at or below the poverty level, Koth says. The neighborhood also has some of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration and youth violence in the city, according to the university’s website.

Not only is the project good for students who attend Bailey Gatzert Elementary in the Central District, but it also benefits the Seattle University students involved with the initiative, contributing to a well-rounded, enriching education.

For the past 20 years, Koth has been involved in the efforts of colleges and universities to help their local communities, and he sees this community involvement as a growing national trend. Different universities do it in different ways, he says.



Some university students tutor elementary students in after-school programs. Law students provide legal help to families in the neighborhood, and nursing students offer health care assistance. Business and economics graduate students have provided free tax assistance to neighborhood residents that have resulted so far in over $600,000 in savings, says Koth.

The Youth Initiative began in 2011 and is supported by Seattle University faculty, staff, and students from all disciplines; by parents, the Seattle School District, the city of Seattle, foundations, faith communities, and more than 30 community organizations to help the children of Seattle succeed in school and life, according to the university’s website.

Since the start of the program a year ago, academic progress is evident with almost twice the average growth in math, and 50 percent more growth in reading among kindergarten and first-graders who have participated in the initiative’s after–school programs compared to those who haven’t, says Koth.

The Youth Initiative will continue to directly engage the neighborhood students as they move through middle school and high school.

Among the challenges the initiative faces is that it only focuses on one neighborhood at a time; the impact of the economic crisis on people’s lives, and crossing cultural and language barriers within different groups in the community, says Koth.

“We are in this effort for the long haul, and we won’t be satisfied until every child in our neighborhood graduates from high school and has an opportunity to go to college,” said president of Seattle University, Stephen V. Sundborg, quoted on the university’s website upon acknowledging the award.

The Presidential Award for Community Service also went to four other universities this year at the annual American Council on Education meeting in Los Angeles, according to the Department of Education.