What We Do

Washington State

Strategy Overview


A family newly housed at Croft Place in West Seattle.

our goal:

Create opportunities for all children in Washington state—regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender—to reach their full potential and thrive in stable families, great schools, and strong communities.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Our Washington State strategy supports all students—regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender—at home, in their communities, and at school.

Fewer than half of Washington’s public school students will complete a high school degree or work-ready credential by the age of 26.

In the past 20 years, there has been a 20- to 30-point achievement gap between high school students that falls along racial lines.

One of our major education initiatives is the Road Map Project in South Seattle and South King County, an area that’s home to 125,000 students. Of these students, 70 percent are students of color, 60 percent are living in poverty, 20 percent are English language learners, and 4 percent (4,500 students) are homeless.

Our home state work is directed by David Bley and is part of the foundation’s United States Division.

We all value equal opportunity, responsibility, and innovation. We believe in hard work, and in education as a way out of poverty. But despite these ideals, the gap between rich and poor is increasing.

Children born into poverty face significant barriers to achieving their dreams. Students who experience the toxic stress of poverty or the bias related to immigration, race, and gender have a harder time in school. And the academic achievement gaps show up as early as kindergarten.

These gaps are stubborn and persistent. In Washington’s high schools, a 20- to 30-point achievement gap separates students by race, and has not changed significantly in the past two decades. Fewer than half of Washington’s public school students will complete a college degree or work-ready credential by age 26, and the numbers are worse for low-income students and students of color.

These issues don’t just affect our children, they hurt our economy, our quality of life, and our future.

The Opportunity

When our children succeed, we all succeed.

The industries that drive Washington’s economy—technology, science, health, and international trade—require a well-educated workforce. To help students succeed later in life, we must start early, with better educational opportunities from preschool on.

We have an opportunity to support students where they live, learn, and play—at home, in their communities, and at school. When we all work together in a nurturing and stable environment that supports the whole child—addressing their academic, social, and development needs from the very beginning—it creates a cycle of prosperity that will benefit us all.

The good news is that many schools have already made clear progress improving equity and expanding opportunity. In Washington, more students are meeting higher standards: In 2016, for example, about 79 percent of all students graduated within four years. This is encouraging. But we must fulfill our promise by ensuring that every child has equal access to opportunity.

Our Strategy

Local Roots, Global Impact

In addition to our efforts to help Washington students reach their full potential from preschool through college, we also invest in a vibrant global health and development sector, bring people together to tackle the most pressing issues, and build capacity and strength in community-based organizations. Our Seattle-based employees are engaged members of our hometown and participate as citizens, activists, donors, and volunteers. In total, the foundation adds $1.5 billion to the local economy every year.

We invite you to learn more about our work at the foundation’s Seattle-based Discovery Center—a place for visitors to investigate some of the world’s tough challenges and learn how to act on their own ideas and solutions.

The work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spans the globe, but we have a deep commitment to improving the lives of families and children in Washington, where the Gates family has lived for generations.

We believe that all children deserve a chance to reach their full potential, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender. Educational attainment—a college degree or work-ready credential—is still the best sign that individuals are on the path to fulfilling their purpose and potential. That’s why we invest in partners working to improve outcomes for students here in Washington.

We support children in every part of their lives:

Home: Every child deserves a safe and stable place to live. Housing and flexible social services—including partnerships between housing and school districts, and programs that address student and family homelessness—provide the security and stability that encourage achievement.

Community: Every relationship is an opportunity. The people and resources in our vibrant neighborhoods—including after-school and summer programs; mentors; and community organizations like churches, cultural networks, and nonprofits—can all work together to nurture every child’s unique abilities.

School: Every classroom can embrace the whole child. Teachers and staff with the tools and support to promote social and emotional skills make schools welcoming and nurturing. High-quality pre-K programs, excellent public school options, and high expectations guide students toward meeting academic milestones.

Areas of Focus

We invest in partners who are making a difference for all students, especially those working to reduce inequity and expand opportunity. We do this through five areas of focus:

Early Learning

Children playing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Home Center.

High-quality pre-K advances a skilled workforce, an engaged community, and a thriving economy. However, not all children have access to these programs and young students are already facing achievement and opportunity gaps. Across Washington, 66 percent of students entering kindergarten are ready to tackle age-appropriate math concepts, but it varies widely across race and ethnic groups and drops as low as 42 percent for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.

Teaching 3- and 4-year-old children requires a special set of skills, including knowledge of how young children develop. Well-trained teachers connect with children, encourage exploration and curiosity, promote critical thinking through questions and conversations, and build on children’s natural play with engaging learning activities. They help children process and understand emotions, resolve conflict, and solve problems on their own. These critical skills set them up for success in school and life.

Successful public pre-K in places like Boston, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina show that high-quality pre-K is achievable, affordable, and creates lasting social, emotional, and academic gains. In Washington, the public and leaders are showing their commitment to children with initiatives like Seattle’s voter-approved “Pre-K For All”—a major step forward for expanding access and opportunity.

We are building strong evidence for the value and effectiveness of high-quality pre-K in Washington. Beyond our home state, we are expanding our early learning investments also in Tennessee, and Oregon—states where we believe we can make a difference. As we continue to learn, expand access, and improve quality, more children will have an early learning experience that equips them for success in kindergarten and beyond.


Learning is a lifelong endeavor, and our investments support children through their entire journey.

Our work connects to the foundation’s national K-12 Education and Postsecondary Success strategies by focusing on both in-school and out-of-school supports that advance a child’s academic success, from pre-K through college. Our grants and partnerships center on early math and social-emotional learning, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for low-income students and students of color.

Student success depends on more than just access to great schools and great teaching. Students need stable housing and trauma-sensitive care, parents and community members who are involved, after-school and summer opportunities, and state and local policies that support a strong and safe learning environment.

Road Map Project

We support the Road Map Project in South Seattle and South King County, a community-driven effort to keep students on track, both in and out of school. The Road Map region is home to seven school districts educating nearly 125,000 students. Of these students, 70 percent are students of color, 60 percent are living in poverty, 20 percent are English language learners, and 4 percent (4,500 students) are homeless.

Our investments in the Road Map Project started in 2010 with a simple idea: No single program, organization, or institution can bring about large-scale social change on its own. To get better results for students, we invest in partners who are coordinating activities across the many organizations that serve children. We also engage parents and communities to support students. And we use data to encourage continuous improvement, building a better system from cradle to college.

In 2017, we started investing more in younger students, focusing deeply on the elementary school years. Across these early grades, we are encouraging more confident math instruction and positive social-emotional skills, while taking into account the cultural context of each school and neighborhood.

Homelessness and Family Stability

A family that found stable housing through the Washington Families Fund, a public-private partnership founded in 2004.

In Washington, nearly 40,000 public school students experience homelessness—enough to fill 600 school buses. Housing instability and other forms of trauma and adversity profoundly affect students’ health and education, as well as the ability of their parents and caregivers to provide economic, social and emotional support.

When children experience homelessness, they switch schools frequently as their families seek safe places to live. As a result, these students have twice the rate of learning disabilities, and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral issues. Less than half of all students experiencing homelessness complete high school.

Addressing family homelessness was one of the first challenges we took on at the foundation. Between 2000 and 2008, our Sound Families Initiative helped build more than 1,450 transitional homes for families with children in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. However, that initiative did not create the impact we hoped for.

Now, in the same three counties, we are working with Building Changes to make homelessness rare, with an approach that recognizes families’ innate strengths, fosters collaboration, streamlines systems, and uses resources more efficiently.

We follow three proven principles to guide our work:

Prevention and diversion, including short-term, flexible assistance tailored to each family’s needs, such as landlord mediation; help with overdue rent and utility bills; and emergency food, clothing, childcare, and transportation.

Coordinated entry, which allows families to make just one phone call to access housing and support services.

Rapid re-housing to place families in permanent housing as soon as possible—reducing the length of time in and higher costs of emergency and transitional shelter.


Strengthening Communities

We believe that every community has the innate ability to lead on solutions to its most pressing challenges. Success depends on a strong non-profit ecosystem, with trusting and long-term working relationships. We work together with other local philanthropists and community foundations to actively support our non-profit ecosystem in a way that values leadership, equity, and each organization’s capacity to tackle big problems.

Bringing people and the systems that serve them together to effectively to tackle big problems means that the solutions are developed by the community and for the community—and are more likely to be successful and sustainable.


Visit Our Blog