As the final year of funding approaches for a popular advanced-learning program at one of Seattle's poorest high schools, a community goes into overdrive to find answers.
Ever-more students at Rainier Beach High are signing up for advanced course work, increasing the school’s overall enrollment and graduation rates. But the program that supports those classes is in jeopardy.
For the past two years, teachers at the Southeast Seattle school have been urging students to push themselves by taking International Baccalaureate (I.B.) classes in the Theory of Knowledge, History of the Americas and Sports, Health and Exercise Science, even though many students arrive at Beach with weak academic skills.
Despite the challenge, educators insist that more students doing advanced-level work—even if they do not pass end-of-course I.B. exams—lifts the entire school. And their approach appears to be working. Enrollment has grown steadily, and graduation rates are soaring. Last June, 84 percent of seniors left with a diploma, an enormous leap from the 53.7 percent five years ago.
Yet I.B. at Beach is not funded past next year.
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State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, who represents the south end and has announced a run for Congress, is searching for answers. There are state funds for academic acceleration that Beach may be able to apply for, she said. But a one-time answer goes only so far.
“When we met with teachers at Beach they said, ‘It’s not just about us. It’s about advanced learning across the state,’ ” Jayapal recalled.
Currently, three Seattle high schools offer I.B. courses, which can provide college credit, though none are officially part of the district’s Advanced Learning program. In other words, I.B. is an add-on, and parents at Ingraham and Chief Sealth High Schools have been covering much of the cost themselves–to the tune of about $250,000 annually.
Colin Pierce, who coordinates I.B. at Rainier Beach, said that level of fund-raising would place a significant burden on parents at his high-poverty school. Alumni are pitching in. Mimi Hunter, a lawyer who graduated from Beach in 1999, established a foundation currently managed through the Alliance for Education, and raised $10,000 last year after reading about the school’s funding difficulties.
Meanwhile, 117 juniors and seniors are signed up to take I.B. exams this spring, an increase of 26 kids over last year. Thirty-nine of those students are aiming for the full I.B. diploma.
“Our average score last June placed us one point below the global average,” Pierce said. “For our first year of testing, I consider that a significant victory. We’ve got very little to do to close the gap.”
This story, first published Jan. 27, has been corrected. In the initial version, the last name of state Sen. Pramila Jayapal was spelled incorrectly.