Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School seems to have a better future ahead, and if it does then maybe we all do. The Beach is Seattle’s smallest comprehensive high school, but it has a big heart, and it’s an institution that helps us see who we are as a community.
I’m thinking about Rainier Beach because last Thursday I attended its annual multicultural festival, a dinner followed by student performances. This year was the 30th anniversary.
I’ve attended the event many times and seen changes in the student body over the years, changes that reflect what’s happening in the city and even in the country.
This year’s anniversary coincides with another anniversary. Saturday marked 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared the practice of maintaining racially separate but equal schools unconstitutional. The equal part was a cruel joke, but the separate was real.
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The ruling made racial apartheid morally unacceptable, but the actual practice was slow to change and eventually, after struggles without ever achieving complete integration, we’ve settled back into old patterns, but without segregationist language. Just about everyone would tell you they favor racial integration, and really they kind of do, but our social structures perpetuate past patterns.
As the title suggests, the Rainier Beach event is about celebrating cultural diversity. Since Brown, we’ve become a much more diverse country, and the transformation from a majority-white country keeps going.
This fall, white students are projected to be a minority in American public schools. They already are in Seattle Public Schools, though more than two-thirds of the city’s residents are white.
Rainier Beach wasn’t always so small. The building has room for nearly a thousand more students, and the area it draws from has enough students to fill the building. Lately the school has been growing again, to about 500 students, but most area families still choose to go elsewhere.
When I first started attending the multicultural dinners, the performing groups, each of which represents a specific culture, included white groups doing Western or European dancing among other things. But that gradually changed over the years.
This year, the audience was treated to performances of dances from Mexico, Somalia, the South Pacific islands, the Philippines, Vietnam, and West Africa, in addition to music from the Caribbean (played by students who mostly appeared to be white).
The students were talented and proud of their performances, and the audience loved it all.
Everyone at the Beach knows, however, that not everyone in the larger community embraces their school the way they do. A performance by the drama club acknowledged that. It was called, “I am Rainier Beach,” and it was a series of statements of identity, with many affirmations of talent, intelligence, community and academic success. The young ladies in the group noted the school’s sports championships and athletes who’ve gone on to professional careers.
Sandwiched between the positives were mentions of how others see the Beach, including a statement that many families in the neighborhood chose not to send their children to the school. The students are proud, but not naive.
Rainier Beach has been trying to attract those missing families and to better serve the students who do attend by adding advanced-placement classes and last year an International Baccalaureate program. It has an enthusiastic and well-liked principal, Dwane Chappelle, and this month the school learned it will get a federal School Improvement Grant that will allow, among other things, an extension of school hours.
We should all be pulling for Rainier Beach to succeed because the city needs its students and their full talents. Sixty years ago, schools produced students to play segregated roles in a racially segregated society. It was wrong then; it’s insane now, when we rise or fall together in a far different world.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org