“Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised,” says John O’Halloran. “But I was.”
John drove by Bailey Gatzert Elementary for decades. He worked for the Aldus Corporation, which had offices on the Seattle waterfront. His commute took him down Yesler Way, but in those days it was like driving in a tunnel – he was so focused on work.
Years later, John made a stop along that route for the first time. He had joined fellow SVP Partners for a site visit with SVP Investee, Team Read, which runs reading programs at Bailey Gatzert. As part of the site visit, there was a short presentation given by school faculty and staff from Team Read and Seattle University.
“The problems they talked about were jaw-dropping,” John recalls. “How could I have been oblivious to these issues?”
Of the 400 students at Bailey Gatzert, 94% are living at or below the poverty line. In 2012, the Seattle Times reported an estimated 40 students were homeless, and that “entering kindergartners lagged about a year behind students elsewhere in the district.” Plus, there were the physical manifestations of funding shortages. In the not so distant past, pots had lined the floor to catch water from the school’s leaking roof.
At the same time, there were people John met who were embracing these challenges. Principal Greg Imel actually asked to be relocated to Bailey Gatzert because of his commitment to social justice. Through his leadership and the involvement of programs like Seattle University’s Youth Initiative and Team Read, things are turning around.
“Before the initiative began, perhaps two dozen of Bailey Gatzert’s 400 students would get after-school help,” writes Seattle Times’ Katherine Long in a piece about Seattle University’s Youth Initiative. “Today, the school is a beehive of activity long after the school day ends, as about 100 elementary students are joined by dozens of high school and college students for remedial work and a broad range of other programs.”
Photo from the Bailey Gatzert Elementary website.
Seattle University placed a full time staff person, Eddie Lincoln to manage the program with Bailey Gatzert, which John highlights as critical to its success. And it isn’t just limited to student activities. That leaky roof? Seattle University worked with the Bailey Gatzert to obtain grants for needed repairs and additional improvements.
Team Read’s trained high school tutors also provide much needed support for Bailey Gatzert’s 2nd and 3rd graders. Research has established that a student’s 3rd grade reading ability is a strong predictor of whether they will graduate from high school, which is why working with students in this age group is so critical.
Typically, after one academic year working with Team Read tutors, 65% of 2nd graders and 50% of the 3rd graders are reading at or above grade level. An impressive feat when you consider that the average student at Bailey Gatzert began the program 14 months behind.
This combination of programing and sheer commitment has paid off. When John visited the school in December 2012, Bailey Gatzert had the highest improvement in reading and math in the entire Seattle Public School District!
This visit made a huge impression on John (below). “These kids are just as capable as the kids in private schools,” he says. “And I have a moral responsibility to do something.” But what? He didn’t wonder for long.
John’s son is a student at Seattle Academy – a mere mile from Bailey Gatzert. He saw a great opportunity to recruit more tutors for Team Read and to provide an enriching experience for the Seattle Academy students. John connected the head of Seattle Academy with Team Read and Bailey Gatzert, and they started placing tutors this fall.
Bringing his excitement home, John inspired his wife Barbara to get involved at Bailey Gatzert as well. With a background in education, media production and television, Barbara found a perfect niche in the after school movie making program, where she now volunteers.
John is also helping to raise funds for school programs and in October, he and Barbara sponsored a trip to Islandwood for the 5th grade class. Mostly though, John views himself as a connector. He is excited to find new ways to leverage the great work and infrastructure provided by Team Read and Seattle University.
Seeing those successful efforts in motion is a huge motivator for John, who has one piece of advice for SVP Partners who might want to volunteer with a nonprofit. “Find something that resonates – and jump.”
“It makes me feel more connected to the community,” John continues, reflecting on the last year. “I view myself as just beginning, not sure where it will lead yet.”
One thing is certain, however. Yesler Way is no longer a tunnel for John. When he drives that stretch now, he sees all the existing – and potential – connections that can help create a brighter future for kids and the whole community.