by Carolyn Bick
Ryan Quigtar grew up in the Skyway community. Even then, he said, there was a lack of educational and enrichment opportunities for school kids like him. Decades later, this lack of opportunity persists. But as the Executive Director of the Renton Innovation Zone Partnership, Quigtar is now in a place to help do something about it.
The Renton Innovation Zone Partnership, or RIZP, started as an idea at a meeting of the Renton School District and other community partners in 2017. Over the months, that idea bloomed and developed into a solid plan, which was presented in the summer of 2018, alongside three action teams tasked with addressing community needs. These teams focus on early learning, basic needs, and community and family engagement.
Currently, RIZP’s primary goal is to tackle the dearth of educational opportunities facing youth living in the Renton and Skyway communities, specifically in the Lakeridge, Bryn Mawr, Campbell Hill, and Highlands elementary schools. The data around childhood education in the Renton-Skyway area is sobering, RIZP Quigtar said. For instance, just 38 percent of the four schools’ third graders met reading proficiency standards, and only 44 percent of the schools’ fourth graders met math proficiency standards. Even those transitioning into kindergarten face challenges, as they have not had access to what the RIZP final plan calls “quality early learning opportunities.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that most of these kids are children of color, which means they are statistically less likely to do as well in school as their white peers. A little more than 40 percent of these children also live in households where English is not the primary language. In every school, at least 63 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch plans.
Right now, RIZP’s main educational focus areas are kindergarten readiness, third grade reading scores, and fourth grade mathematics scores. But simply throwing money at the problem won’t fix it, Quigtar said. There needs to be deliberate, carefully thought-out programming around the problem that takes into consideration the perceived decades-long lack of investment in the community. Quigtar said that one of the ways RIZP is trying to surmount this issue is by relying heavily on community investment in the initiative –– hence, the word “partnership” in the name.
At the same time, Quigtar said the organization recognizes the challenges of community engagement, since many face scheduling obstacles, such as working multiple jobs or being a sole caretaker. Moreover, the financial toll of choosing to miss work to come to a meeting isn’t minor: seventeen percent of families within the zone RIZP focuses on are 100 percent below the federal poverty line, which is greater than Renton’s overall 12 percent, and double that of King County.
So, though RIZP isn’t a service provider, that doesn’t mean those involved in the organization don’t try to honor these adults’ and parents’ time. Quigtar said that, down the line, when RIZP has spaces for families to attend, the organization plans to have snacks, childcare, and reimbursement. RIZP’s Communications Manager Jasmine Raelynn said they provided monetary compensation for parents who volunteered at a September kickoff event.
RIZP has already held two autumn math events, one on a weekday evening, and one on a Saturday, in an effort to boost attendance. There were also interpreters on hand at the autumn math events, in order to account for the high population of non-native English speakers who live and send their children to schools in the area. During these events, kids got to do everything from going on scavenger hunts to participating in games in which they gathered and counted items from the natural world, things like rocks and leaves, Raelynn said.
Thanks to a grant from Washington STEM, RIZP was also able to send the attendees home with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) kits in different languages, in order to help parents continue to teach their children outside a classroom or traditional education setting.
The organization has also created an Innovation Fund, which grants small amounts of money to various community organizations and groups, in order to facilitate the overall goal of boosting educational opportunities. One such recipient is a play and learn group for young children that meets in a Skyway church on Saturdays.
“We thought that filled some gaps, because there weren’t any play and learn groups that were on Saturdays, and it was also culturally appropriate. So, we felt that it was right to give some seed funding to get that off the grounds,” Quigtar said.
While RIZP is also looking into more enrichment opportunities for a broader age range –– specifically for the older siblings of these kindergartners and third-and fourth-graders –– it’s also got an eye towards helping to create affordable housing for students and their families. According to the RIZP final plan, 8.3 percent of children in the four schools are experiencing homelessness. The organization also understands the difficulties facing families who don’t experience homelessness, but who are being pushed out of the area, due to gentrification and associated cost of living increases. Quigtar said RIZP wants to help the area stay diverse and students remain with their peers.
RIZP is also trying to help create culturally appropriate supports and services for entire families, particularly when it comes to behavioral health supports. Though there are some organizations in the area who already fill that need, Quigtar said RIZP wants to make sure there is more access to them.
“We understand and acknowledge that there is a lot of stigma in certain cultures … specifically in communities of color. That’s kind of a taboo thing –– going to see a counselor. It’s something for us that we understand that that can be the difference for a family or for a student in turning a corner in them really developing,” Quigtar said. “For us, [it’s] thinking about how do we coordinate with providers? How do we destigmatize that idea of behavioral health in families, and just be able to have that conversation openly in a safe space?”
In the future, Raelynn said, RIZP also wants to create more volunteer opportunities, as well as paid summer internships for the area’s teens. It’s also looking into holding community workshops for adults to come and learn various civil skills, such as grant writing or landlord policies –– “making more of a data-driven shift, so that we can make sure that we are meeting our goals, and pushing that needle through, and we just hope to cultivate with more families and students.”