UW Tacoma is on a mission of progress for Pierce County

Cleaning up pollution. Delivering health care. Improving education. Just a routine day at UW Tacoma.

In 2006, when the University of Washington Tacoma presented Janet Runbeck with her master’s degree in nursing, she was determined to do what she could to improve access to health care for low-income people suffering from chronic medical conditions. In 2009, she established RotaCare Tacoma, one of a network of urgent-care clinics supported by Rotary International. But this clinic was different—it was dedicated to serving only those with chronic conditions, not urgent needs.

RotaCare Tacoma’s services were free, and the clinic was held on Wednesday nights in the janitor’s lunchroom at Pacific Lutheran University. The clinic treated uninsured patients suffering from conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Runbeck believed that low-income people with chronic diseases should be able to obtain basic health care to prevent strokes and heart attacks.

Runbeck’s idea was a huge undertaking and she couldn’t have done it without the help of many community partners, including Pacific Lutheran University, the Franciscan Foundation, MultiCare Foundation, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and Rotary, to name a few. By 2014, the clinic would serve 122 patients, 81 suffering from diabetes. For her work, the city of Tacoma honored her with a City of Destiny Award for Community Health and Wellness.

Situated in the urban core of this city of 202,010, UW Tacoma is not an isolated ivory tower of higher education.

Fortunately for the community, the January 2014 implementation of federal health care reform removed the need for the clinic. “The happiest day of my life was the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act and put me out of business,” she says. Runbeck switched from caregiving to helping patients sign up for coverage and transition to new providers. Now, at age 61, she is working fewer hours a week, volunteering for Pierce County Medical Reserve Corps, participating in prevention services at community food banks and homeless shelters. Runbeck also belongs to two service clubs that raise scholarship money, paint houses and work on domestic-violence issues. She is also part of a grassroots movement to prevent the human trafficking of minor girls in Pierce County. “I consider human trafficking of minors a public health problem,” she says.

Runbeck’s story is a stellar example of what makes the UW Tacoma so special. Situated in the urban core of this city of 202,010, UW Tacoma is not an isolated ivory tower of higher education. Its faculty, staff, students and alumni are entwined with the communities of Pierce County in almost everything they do. Since the University opened its doors in 1990, its people and programs have made life better for residents throughout the South Puget Sound region, as many of its programs, services and research projects directly benefit the surrounding community. And many of these are so successful because of the working partnerships UW Tacoma creates with government, community and educational organizations.


One great example is UW Tacoma’s Pathways to Promise program, which operates in Tacoma and Puyallup school districts (and is coming soon to Federal Way). Geared to serve students who may be the first in their family to attend college, it provides guaranteed entrance to UW Tacoma based on four requirements: a 2.7 GPA; SAT scores of at least 480 on each section or an ACT score of 21 or higher; meeting basic graduation requirements; and a well-done admission letter.

One great example is UW Tacoma’s Pathways to Promise program, which operates in Tacoma and Puyallup school districts (and is coming soon to Federal Way). Geared to serve students who may be the first in their family to attend college, it provides guaranteed entrance to UW Tacoma based on four requirements: a 2.7 GPA; SAT scores of at least 480 on each section or an ACT score of 21 or higher; meeting basic graduation requirements; and a well-done admission letter.

The results are striking. Since its inception in 2013, Pathways to Promise has inspired a 67 percent increase in applications to UW Tacoma from graduates of the Puyallup School District. Applications from graduates of Tacoma Public Schools for fall 2014 have increased a whopping 70 percent. UW Tacoma had set a goal for Tacoma schools in 2013 of 130 student applications. The actual number: 194.

“The most important thing is giving families a clear understanding of the expectations that the student has to meet to qualify for college admission,” says Cedric Howard, vice chancellor for student and enrollment services at UW Tacoma. “This gives students hope that they have the chance to go to a four-year institution.”

Pathways to Promise addresses the fact that students with low incomes—even with solid high-school records and decent board scores—often don’t have college on their radar. UW Tacoma is working to change that so the dream of college can become a reality.

Another example of UW Tacoma’s impact in education is its work with Pierce County school districts to inform teachers about what courses students need for college applications, and to create a culture in the schools that encourages students to go to college. This outreach takes the form of school district superintendents and the UW Tacoma chancellor sending personal invitations to the families of students who meet college-application requirements. Last year, UW Tacoma conducted a workshop to teach students about the college-application process and drew 40 students from Tacoma and surrounding communities. UW Tacoma admissions counselors help students navigate the confusing financial-aid and daunting application processes. And in February, representatives from the University along with Hendrix the Husky, the UW Tacoma mascot, personally delivered acceptance letters to seniors during the school day.

Howard says introducing college to elementary school students is helping students select the right classes in middle school and that, in turn, leads to smarter high school choices that prepare them for college admission.

This past summer, the Pathways to Promise program partnered with the Pierce County Library System to give seminars on what a career is and what college is all about. In high schools with no college-guidance counselors, UW Tacoma staff provide assistance with filling out applications to prospective college students. This outreach throughout Pierce County also extends to local Boys and Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound.


Another UW Tacoma program works with the Tacoma School District on the Whole Child Initiative, an eight-year education reform effort to nurture children behaviorally, academically and emotionally so they can succeed in school regardless of risk factors like poverty—which affects 61 percent of Tacoma students.

Historically, school reform has tended to be somewhat like dieting. Initially, it starts enthusiastically but then fades and the same old struggles reappear. This is especially true in low-income, high-minority schools with high staff turnover, as is the case in Tacoma and other South Puget Sound communities. “Eventually it’s back to business the way we’ve always done it,” says Greg Brenner, director of UW Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools.

“In the past, we would have built the capacity of the staff to provide better reading or math instruction but the challenge is that many of the students struggle behaviorally. You can invest a lot of money in lesson plans and a shiny new curriculum but you have to engage the students if you want to close the achievement gap,” he explains.

The Whole Child Initiative involves everyone who comes in contact with children during the day. For example, a bus driver will say to a child: “Are you ready to be responsible and respectful today?” When a child says, “Yes,” the bus driver says, “Welcome to the bus.” Everywhere the child goes, everyone he or she meets is trained to give what’s called positive behavioral support. That way, the students know what is expected of them—and they begin to form new, positive behavioral habits. “We have seen a two-hour increase per day in teachers’ academic instruction in the classroom compared to dealing with discipline problems in the principal’s office,” says Aaron Wilkins, principal of Boze Elementary in Tacoma. At Boze, 91 percent of the children receive free or reduced-price meals.

Further evidence that the initiative is working: graduation rates have risen more than 15 percent in the last three years. In the Tacoma School District, there were 1,219 total referrals for school discipline from September through December 2012, compared to 904 referrals in the same months of 2013. School safety has improved by 35 percent in the last year. Almost all teachers, students and parents reported dramatic changes in these areas compared to previous years. The percentage of students excluded due to suspension or expulsion has dropped from nearly 9.7 percent of all Tacoma students to 6.6 percent. Teachers are less stressed and report more student engagement and more time to teach. In addition, bus discipline referrals dropped to 554 from September to December 2013, compared to 844 for that period in 2012.

UW Tacoma’s community partnerships extend just as broadly and deeply in health care as they do in education.

UW Tacoma’s community partnerships extend just as broadly and deeply in health care as they do in education. Janet Primomo, ’82, ’89, associate professor of nursing, and her colleagues in the UW Tacoma Nursing & Healthcare Leadership Program work closely with Tacoma’s health-care institutions and the Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health Department in assessing community health and research projects that aid the department in developing programs and services.

It’s hard to find an area of nursing in which Primomo hasn’t been connected to the community. In 2013, Primomo received the UW Tacoma Community Engagement Award.This year, her students worked with the Perinatal Collaborative of Pierce County to study homelessness and pregnant women. They found that about 12 babies each month are born to mothers who are homeless and that the long-term result of this includes learning disabilities and stress passed from mothers to infants. Primomo has also been active with MultiCare Health System’s summer nurse camp, which brings high school students to the UW Tacoma campus to learn about nursing as a career.

Moreover, she has been pivotal in helping lead the Clean Air for Kids Partnership and the Puget Sound Asthma Coalition to reduce rates of asthma. Frank DiBiase, senior administrator in the Tacoma Health Department’s Division of Environmental Health, can’t say enough about Primomo.

“The Clean Air for Kids Partnership has significantly improved the health of families in Pierce County with asthma thanks in large part to Janet and the students she brought to the partnership,” he says.

“Janet also really rolled up her sleeves when we were awarded an EPA grant to monitor blood-lead levels in Latino and African American children in Pierce County. She educated classes of her students about our project and the health effects of lead on children, steered them into a variety of research projects and gave them direction as they helped us with monitoring. We couldn’t have successfully completed this work without the aid of Janet and her students.”


Health is not the concern only of the nursing department at UW Tacoma. Jim Gawel, associate professor of environmental chemistry and engineering, had a serendipitous start to a research project that has long-range implications for the health of the community. Fourteen years ago, he accepted his faculty position and unwittingly moved near a Superfund site contaminated by arsenic and lead.

Gawel discovered that he was living near the former smelter in Ruston, the plant that gave Puget Sound communities toxic gifts that have kept on giving for decades. Gawel observes dryly, “My back yard was contaminated by arsenic and lead, but I don’t eat dirt so it was easy to avoid.”

The smelter’s stack, once the tallest in the world, spewed noxious plumes throughout much of the smelter’s 100-year history before it was torn down in 1993. Gawel, who has a doctorate from MIT in environmental and aquatic chemistry as well as civil and environmental engineering, is exceptionally well-suited to study and contribute solutions to one aspect of the smelter’s pollution that hasn’t drawn much attention to date: contamination of urban lakes.

Shallow urban lakes where many people fish and enjoy summer swimming have not slid under the EPA’s microscope. Gawel says understanding the condition of these lakes is vital because the population around these shallow urban lakes continues to grow. These lakes are also an important aquatic habitat and a source of food, particularly for poor people supplementing their diets with fish or maintaining cultural traditions by fishing.

Gawel and a phalanx of curious and able UW Tacoma undergraduates have done the painstaking scientific work for more than a decade to discover that the 26 lakes they studied within a 20-mile radius of the smelter are heavily contaminated with arsenic and lead. Sediment arsenic and lead in 83 percent of these lakes exceeds the concentration that is thought to be harmful to humans. “As far as health goes, we don’t yet know what the story will be with the fish,” says Gawel.

One complicating issue is while all the lakes contain arsenic and lead, the lakes are different in size and shape and subject to other pollutants as well. Varying amounts of nutrients from urban runoff emptying into these lakes affect the potential for arsenic exposure to humans and wildlife. That means a different solution may be needed for each lake. “This isn’t likely to be a ‘one and done’ solution,” says Gawel.

Students who work with Gawel learn science by being scientists. They take core samples from the sediment and measure several other water-quality parameters. And their work has been recognized internationally, as Gawel and six of his students had their research results published in the journal Science of the Total Environment this past February.

The litmus test for many people in UW Tacoma’s community of scholars is whether a program, a research project or a learning experience ultimately will make life better for the people around them. That is the mission of UW Tacoma.