Whatcom View: Closing opportunity gap with unique partnership

Take one minute right now to reflect on how after-school programs or similar activities may have helped to shape your life or your child’s life. Now keep that picture in mind as I share with you a window in to our creative, first-time, three-way partnership to provide crucial after school programs for those who need it most right here in Bellingham.

The partnership focuses on closing the opportunity gap through extended day programming. Children attending Title I (low income) schools in Bellingham will now have greater access to after-school enrichment programs. About four years ago, Bellingham School District and the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University brought together educators and community agencies to discuss the possibility of creating a collective impact partnership. The intent of this partnership was to find ways to better serve all school children in the Bellingham community.

During a partnership meeting in 2013, one of the community members suggested focusing our work on creating better opportunities for Title I school children. At the time, this community member was the president of the PTA at the Alderwood Elementary School. The PTA had worked very hard at the school to bring material resources such as, computers, books and bookshelves for the library. However, the PTA president said that one of the biggest needs at the school was to enhance the after-school program.

Students at the school did not have after-school programming opportunities in many areas such as, the arts (music and dance), sports and other team building activities such as, chess and tech clubs. Furthermore, many of the parents could not afford to pay for private lessons outside of afterschool programming.

Everyone at the partnership meeting agreed that this would be a good place to start our work. We began with a variety of listening sessions, which included Alderwood Elementary School teachers, PTA, parents, and students. During the sessions we learned about the type of afterschool programming needed for Alderwood Elementary School students and their families.

Using a collective impact strategy Bellingham Public Schools and Woodring College of Education pooled their resources to hire a part-time after-school coordinator, raise funds to help with after-school busing, and increased our college student practicums at the school, as well as community volunteers. Within a year, we were able to expand the after-school program to include dance, art, chess, guitar, violin, one-on-one academic tutoring, and so forth. And the results showed: kids gained new skills, increased their academic achievement, and kept busy during those crucial hours in the afternoon.

As you can see, we’re making an impact through our collective efforts. This gave us the encouragement to continue our work to help Title I elementary schools enrich their after-school programming and to take our partnership to United Way.

Education is one of United Way of Whatcom County’s key impact areas for our community and we were elated to begin partnering with them this spring. Their generous grant will help us expand to fund after-school programming for two Title I elementary schools for the next three years. These include Alderwood Elementary School and Cordata Elementary School. At both schools, more than two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, about half are students of color, and about one-third are English language learners. Approximately 300 students at each school are expected to participate in this free program, which will also offer engagement and learning activities for families, including meals, homework help strategies for parents, and English as a Second Language classes.

Research shows that children’s participation in extended-day activities lead to more engagement in school, increased student attendance, higher academic achievement, and eventually higher rates of graduation from high school.

Our vision is to eventually assist all of the Title I elementary schools in Bellingham to enrich their after-school programming. Partnerships such as the United Way of Whatcom County, Bellingham Public Schools and Woodring College of Education are critical to creating equitable educational P-12 opportunities for the purpose of building a greater future for our community.

Right now United Way of Whatcom County is conducting their annual campaign to raise funds that will impact 100,000-plus individuals in our community. Your gift to this year’s campaign will help change the lives of kids, families, and individuals through programs like ours and many other programs and projects that United Way is partnering with here in Whatcom County. The more that is raised, the more people will be impacted and the more programs they can partner with. Give at your workplace or go online to unitedwaywhatcom.org to contribute to this year’s campaign and show how when we all pitch in we build a stronger community for all. Truly great things happen when we live united!

About United Way

United Way of Whatcom County runs more than 150 workplace giving campaigns during the fall to benefit Whatcom County’s Community Impact Fund, which focuses on education, income, and health. For more information about making a contribution, conducting a United Way workplace campaign, or for more information about United Way of Whatcom County, go online to unitedwaywhatcom.org.


Dr. Karen Dade is the associate dean of Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University.