More than a decade ago, the Seattle school district placed Rainier Beach High on the chopping block.
Declining enrollment, low graduation rates and poor test scores played into a reputation that Rainier Beach was perhaps the worst high school in Seattle. But rather than funnel more resources and support into the South End campus, the district slated it for potential closure — triggering a fight for the school’s survival.
That story, well-known to the families and educators who led the effort to save Rainier Beach, earned a national spotlight over the weekend on the HBO show “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.” The show, hosted by former “The Daily Show” correspondent and writer Wyatt Cenac, has focused much of its second season on education and issues with teacher strikes, school safety and bullying.
The fifth episode, which aired Friday night, featured Rainier Beach as a prime example of Seattle’s growing inequality and its impact on schools.
“Often schools are — in the poorest communities — are the last functioning institutions in that community,” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said in the episode.
“So many of the schools that we label as ‘failing’ are failed schools. They’re not failing schools,” she added later.
The show captured what The Seattle Times’ Education Lab discovered in its own reporting back in 2016: Despite the odds and naysayers, the Rainier Beach community rallied together to save its school. Parents secured millions of dollars in grants and funding for a new International Baccalaureate (IB) program, one that Cenac noted typically enjoys support at wealthier schools.
As of the last school year, more than 80% of Rainier Beach students come from low-income households, and nearly 50% identify as black.
Former Rainier Beach principal Dwane Chappelle, who now heads the city’s education department, recalled in the episode how some of his students questioned whether they could rise to the rigor included in IB classes.
“I would have some kids say, ‘Mr. Chappelle, why you bringing that program into the school? You know black kids can’t be in no programs … Only the white kids get to be in them,'” Chappelle said.
“There was the belief among kids that look like me and you,” he told Cenac, “that they couldn’t actually participate in some rigorous classes. So we had to dispel that myth.”
Eventually, the community’s hard work paid off: Enrollment at Rainier Beach more than doubled from about 350 students in 2007 to 750 a decade later. The school’s on-time graduation rate reached 88.6% last year — one of the highest in the district.
Last year, University of Washington professor Ann Ishimaru published a paper in the Journal of Educational Administration about the transformation of Rainier Beach.
She found the grassroots approach to reclaim Rainier Beach separated it from similar efforts to turn around other schools across the country.
“Part of the ‘secret sauce’ at Rainier Beach is that it wasn’t just a top-down fix,” Ishimaru said in an October news release. “One of the things this case represents is that justice-based change requires a collective of people working at multiple levels simultaneously, particularly those directly affected by inequities.”
Still, there are questions about how long Rainier Beach can sustain that success for the community behind it, especially as rapid gentrification in the south end pushes low-income families beyond city limits.
“It’s one of the richest cities around and also a huge disparity in the way that resources get distributed,” Cenac said in the episode.