Social progress in White Center

The neighborhood is the focus of several programs designed to boost test scores, encourage early learning, improve living conditions, and provide a positive example of community pride and success that can be applied elsewhere. Part 2
Crosscut archive image.
The neighborhood is the focus of several programs designed to boost test scores, encourage early learning, improve living conditions, and provide a positive example of community pride and success that can be applied elsewhere. Part 2

Second of two parts
Part 1: Gentrifying White Center

Near Greenbridge, the Highline School District is making new progress. A new elementary school is being built, the county is adding a new library branch and has renovated a community center, and ground will be broken late this summer on a Greenbridge Early Learning Center, conceived as the focal point of an ambitious White Center Early Learning Initiative.

The public-private Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $4.7 million for "expanded early learning options for families with young children," and the Gates Foundation will spend another $7 million for construction of the center. The building will house what is basically an expanded Head Start program, plus classes for daycare providers and other people who work with very young children. It will also serve as the hub of an ambitious community outreach program.

There are two goals, explains Monte Bridges, executive director of the Puget Sound Educational Service District, which will help administer the funds: helping the White Center community and demonstrating an approach that can be exported to other communities around the country. Potentially, "this will have a huge state and national significance," Bridges says.

To prove the program is good enough to take on the road, it will be evaluated in a number of different ways, including biennial tests of kindergarten readiness.

The press releases talk about expanding early learning opportunities for kids from birth to five years of age, but the program will actually include kids — or the parents of kids — younger than that. Outreach will include not only "welcome baby visits" by nurses but also prenatal care and the training of doulas. "Ultimately," Bridges says, "our hope is that we have these quality early learning services from pre-natal on up."

The early learning dollars have followed money invested in White Center by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Casey has set up a Making Connections program, one of just 10 the foundation has started in urban areas around the United States. The Casey Foundation focuses on helping children, which they determine is to help poor kids by improving conditions for their families and communities. When asked if anything distinguishes this from conventional community development programs, the director of Casey's national Making Connections program, Frank Yarrow, says "I'm not sure it does." If anything does separate Casey from the rest of the pack, it's "the two-pronged approach." That is, working not only to raise educational standards for kids but also to create economic opportunities for their parents. The program puts a lot of effort into "trying to make sure that young kids get the best start in life." How do Yarrow and his colleagues define a good start? The key result, he says, will be "much higher third-grade reading scores." Kids who read well in third grade tend to do well for the rest of their educational careers. Kids who can't read by that stage do not.

Why choose White Center as a place to raise those scores? "Who are the families and the kids who often get left behind?" Yarrow asks. Clearly, refugees and other Third World immigrants rank high on the list, and White Center has a lot of these. The foundation also wondered "were there people who were likely to take up this work?" He says the foundation got "a sense that there were committed organizational players and committed residents."

Some of those residents have become part of a group called the Trusted Advocates, which represents ethnic constituencies within the community. Trusted Advocates helps address community concerns to the project board, and brings information about Making Connections back into their neighborhood communities, translating both linguistically and culturally as needed. They also connect the community to the Partners Group, which represents institutional sources of money and programs, including Boeing, the state Department of Social and Health Services, the Puget Sound Educational Service District, the Highline School District, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundations, and the King County Housing Authority. The Trusted Advocates idea started in White Center and has been adapted to fit other communities. Along with Providence and Louisville, Yarrow says White Center's Making Connections program has done "outstanding work in terms of new roles for residents." Reaching out to a community with so many different cultures and languages will be tricky for the early learning center, Bridges says, and that effort will rely heavily on the Trusted Advocates.

Success will mean that "parents are able to support their kids and kids are succeeding," Yarrow says. Casey has made a 10-year commitment to White Center. The program is scheduled to end in 2010. After that, the foundation doesn't want everything to go back to the way it was. "I hope that this two-generational approach gets sustained," Yarrow says, and that social service organizations remain "focused on what the community has to do to make it a good place to raise kids." He also hopes to leave behind "an infrastructure that keeps track of those results and keeps pushing for them." Right now, Yarrow says, Making Connections is working with all ten communities to figure out how the work will be sustained. The trick will be shifting the responsibility to local people and organizations. In White Center, the Partners Group "becomes the sustaining infrastructure," Yarrow says.

There is the possibility that as families get economic and educational boosts from Making Connections, they'll simply move out of the area, leaving the individuals, but not the community, better off. Yarrow says one measure of success will be leaving White Center "a place where people want to stay, where they want to raise their kids."

But will they be able to stay? Traditionally, as poor neighborhoods become more attractive places to live, people with more money move in, and rising costs drive the poor people out. Why shouldn't gentrification undercut the current efforts to improve people's lives and the existing community in White Center? Can anything stop it?

There are certainly unknowns, as virtually everyone readily acknowledges. Greenbridge won't prevent the gentrification of White Center. The White Center Community Development Association is exploring the possibility of banking land so that there will be some place to build affordable housing in the future. Yarrow says the Annie E. Casey Foundation was well aware of the risk of gentrification. He agrees that affordable housing will be a key. The Making Connections program is "a very neighborhood-based approach," he says, but affordable housing "can't be dealt with neighborhood-by-neighborhood."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.