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The Zone Project in northeast Spokane seeks to help students overcome generational obstacles

Arlington Elementary students (from left) Elijah Marshall, Dawson White, Michael Vaughn, Lydia Canfield, Hunter Buckmaster and Silas Scofeld work together to program their robotic LEGO during class on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Arlington Elementary students (from left) Elijah Marshall, Dawson White, Michael Vaughn, Lydia Canfield, Hunter Buckmaster and Silas Scofeld work together to program their robotic LEGO during class on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The school day was over at Arlington Elementary School and the weather was warm, but Tyler Colean’s after-hours robotics class was packed – with Legos, robots and rampant curiosity.

As fifth-grader Vincent Moon held the small robot in his hands, he said, “We’re trying to make it turn.”

And so it did – another sign of progress, much like the ongoing work to turn things around for families and students in northeast Spokane.

For that, much of the credit goes to The Zone Project, which since its founding in 2015 has taken a collaborative approach with schools, families and businesses in a neighborhood that faces challenges spanning generations.

And what better way to start than with the next generation?

Thanks to a $1.7 million gift from the Ballmer Group – founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer – The Zone Project is helping Spokane Public Schools improve access to quality afterschool and summer programming for kids with the greatest needs.

Few areas have greater needs than “The Zone,” an area roughly stretching north and east from I-90 and Division Street and feeding into Shaw and Garry middle schools.

That’s a large chunk of the city, with large deficits. For decades, families in northeast Spokane have struggled with underemployment, food and housing insecurity and low education levels, compared with other parts of the city.

The average household income is about $35,000.

However, “There are a lot of strengths in northeast Spokane,” said Amber Waldref, a former Spokane city council member and now the director of The Zone Project.

“There are a lot of hardworking families, and refugees with incredible resilience,” said Waldref, who grew up in northeast Spokane and still lives there.

Waldref was in the crowd earlier this month when Spokane Public Schools broke ground on the new Shaw project, a collaboration of epic proportions that also will include a new Hillyard Library and On Track Academy – all a stone’s throw from the Northeast Community Center where The Zone Project is headquartered.

That’s two years away. Besides, test scores and academic achievement are built on pillars other than concrete and steel.

Meanwhile, The Zone is using funds from Innovia and the Ballmer group to increase access to out-of-school programs and services and improve on-time grade promotion and social-emotional growth.

“It’s about getting kids on a pathway,” said Lisa White, who coordinates afterschool programs for the district.

One the most promising is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs. Last summer, dozens of families paid to send their kids to a STEM camp at Chase Middle School, on the South Hill.

That’s not an option for many kids in northeast Spokane, so the district and The Zone Project “went holistic,” according to White, who noted that STEM is getting a big emphasis at Rogers High School.

Colean, now in his sixth year at Arlington, “jumped on board immediately” and was one of the STEM facilitators last summer at Shaw.

The enthusiasm carried into the fall, as his after-hours students brainstormed on such things as Lego robots, pollution and homelessness.

“The first thing is helping kids to problem-solve,” said Colean, whose previous classes have competed in regional competitions.

“They walk into a room and are presented with a problem and they have to solve it right there,” Colean said. “They also have to learn to get along.”

That’s the same kind of holistic approach The Zone Project is using to put the Ballmer Group’s gift to optimal use.

That approach includes increasing access to out-of-school programs and services; improving coordination of those programs with the school district; and engaging families in developing goals.

That can be a challenge in northeast Spokane, where academic achievement is stifled by a variety of factors. More than four in five students receive free or reduced-price meals, and more than half of incoming kindergartners are not fully prepared for school.

According to the district’s Early Warning System, by sixth grade, more than a quarter of those children are at risk of dropping out and repeating a generational cycle.

Only 25% of adults in northeast Spokane have completed a two-year degree or greater, compared with 43% of adults in Spokane overall.

When White meets with reluctant parents and tells them about STEM, “and they find out that their kids get to do this cool stuff, they say, ‘I might have liked to do that.’”

That’s one barrier broken, but there are others, including transportation, child care and food.

“We need parents to get involved,” Waldref said. “That doesn’t just help the kids be more successful, but the summer might allow these moms to go back to school and hopefully complete or start their continuing education.”

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