Share story

Millions of extra dollars would be significant news for any school.

But at Rainier Beach High School, with its struggles well-documented and successes often ignored, an infusion of federal money, announced Thursday, was enough to attract a visit from district officials and inspire Principal Dwane Chappelle to play the song “Happy” during afternoon announcements.

Sixty-four schools were eligible to apply for School Improvement Grants because they are among Washington’s poorest performers, but Rainier Beach was the only one in Seattle on the final recipient list of 13. (14 schools applied.)

“It’s about time,” said former Rainier Beach parent Pam Berry, who continues to advocate for the high-poverty school. “Southeast Seattle always gets overlooked.”

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Seattle requested $4.3 million, though the final award figure is still under discussion in Olympia. Whatever the total, Chappelle said, most of it will go toward extending the school day and increasing the number of students enrolled in rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) classes.

But the grant, bestowed only on those Title 1 high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, bears a mixed message: Is it an endorsement of hard-won progress at Rainier Beach or a statement about how far it still has to go?

Randy Dorn, head of the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), says the funds are essential to improving education — especially since the courts have ruled that Washington drastically underfunds its public schools. Similar grants have helped to boost math and literacy scores at more than three-quarters of past recipient schools, he said.

Yet in Seattle, several previous improvement-grant winners remain on the state’s priority list of poor performers — including West Seattle Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary and Cleveland High.

“We know they are making gains,” said OSPI spokesman Nate Olson. “But school improvement takes time, and their gains aren’t as fast as at other schools.”

Such vagaries did not appear to irk Seattle School District Superintendent José Banda, who’d made a personal pitch for Rainier Beach’s application and arrived at the school on Thursday bearing an enormous sheet cake.

“Rainier Beach has seen some really challenging times, but they have turned the corner,” Banda said. “We pushed hard for this grant so they can continue that work.”

Notably, Banda said he’d asked federal officials to waive the requirement that Rainier Beach dump its current principal. Improvement grants are designed to create a dramatic turnaround — meaning that schools must hire new leaders, overhaul staff, convert to charter management or increase learning time and community outreach.

Rainier Beach insisted that Chappelle — a youthful Texas transplant with obvious student rapport — remain.

“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have applied,” Banda said. “Funding is nice, but at the expense of losing the leadership here, no.”

For Marvette Charles, 17, the prospect of more school time did not elicit groans — quite the contrary.

“If the school day is extended, I’ll be able to take Theory of Knowledge,” she said, referring to a popular IB class scheduled after the final bell. “I’ll have the pleasure of being in a class with kids who like to think. Even when there are arguments, it’s a healthy discussion.”

Chappelle arrived at Rainier Beach in July 2011, assigned to engineer an overhaul. In three years, enrollment is up more than 30 percent, test scores for 10th-grade reading and writing have improved markedly and on-time graduation rates have climbed by six points, to 59 percent.

By 2017, when the grant period ends, Chappelle wants to see that number at 90 percent.

“This might come back to bite me,” he acknowledged. “But I know we can do it.”

Claudia Rowe:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.