Rainier Beach, once considered the worst high school in Seattle, now has graduation rates that top the district’s.
Tangled in bureaucracy and tradition, public schools need years — often the better part of a decade — for real turnaround, so skeptics may wave off the spike in graduation rates at Rainier Beach High as a mere blip.
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Or ignore its ballooning enrollment.
Or shrug at the dozens of students on track to leave with college credit for advanced studies.
In the past two years, all of these things have happened at Seattle’s long-languishing South End school, and all trace back to the moment when Rainier Beach gambled on a rigorous curriculum with a fancy name and high-end pedigree: the International Baccalaureate.
Outsiders have been dismissive from the start. Rainier Beach kids, many of whom entered high school performing below grade level, would never succeed on the college track, they said. The school was an incubator for star athletes, not serious scholars.
But early results are crushing those predictions as soundly as a slam dunk.
No marker is more stunning than Beach’s 25-point increase in graduation rates since 2011. Last spring, 79 percent of seniors left with a diploma — better than the 74 percent district average.
Parents, once so wary of Beach’s reputation for gangs and lackluster academics that they were willing to pay for private school or drive 20 miles north for advanced classes, are beginning to reconsider. Projected enrollment next fall at Rainier Beach is higher than it has been in a decade.
“When I was a freshman, I would have cleaned sewers rather than come here,” said Hussein Abshir, now a senior. “I’d heard the rumors so I came with really low expectations — I would have gone to North Seattle, or even Bainbridge Island.”
Instead, Abshir spent his junior year puzzling through Josef Stalin’s rise to power in an International Baccalaureate history class; being taught computer code by programmers from Microsoft; and envisioning himself as a student at the University of Washington Bothell, where he has been accepted for next fall.
But his enthusiasm, and that of the 130 Rainier Beach students recommended for IB courses next year, bumps up against a discomfiting fact: Seattle Public Schools does not consider the program part of the district’s official Advanced Learning options, and has no plans to fund IB beyond the startup grant that Rainier Beach will exhaust in 2017.
In other words the International Baccalaureate, despite its encouraging results, is an extra, something that parents at other schools eventually end up paying for.
“When we started, there wasn’t necessarily a vision at the district level for how we would sustain this,” said Colin Pierce, who manages the IB program at Rainier Beach. “That does raise the question of how Seattle uses advanced learning — is it just a student-sorting mechanism? Or can it be a way to address equity?”
Push from parents
Popular with the children of diplomats, the International Baccalaureate came to Rainier Beach largely at the insistence of South End parents desperate to make the school more attractive to families.
Enrollment had dwindled to 366 students — a quarter the size of most local high schools — when Pierce began the arduous, three-year application process for IB certification. Opening those classes to all students, even those who would not pursue the full diploma, was part of his plan from the start, so every junior and senior now takes IB Language Arts.
Simultaneously, Principal Dwane Chappelle hired more than a dozen new faculty, all of whom have been trained in IB’s deep-inquiry approach to wrestling with intellectual questions.
The new crop includes algebra teacher Adam Christopulos, who started four years ago with just a few tables in his classroom, because no one anticipated that he’d ever have more than 18 students.
Now the room is packed.
“We still have work to do,” he said. “But because the atmosphere has changed, it changes the attitude of my students. They think, ‘I’m at this school with a high-level program,’ and they act different.”
Despite the sense of evolution, Rainier Beach is no prep academy. Students sometimes doze in class. Textbooks are not always available. Last week, a senior backed away from attempting an IB diploma — the required research paper was just too much.
Nevertheless, Tavares Tagaleo’o, 17, says the overall climate is more serious, more scholarly, and he credits IB.
“It was really a shock, going from this laid-back place into a real academic school,” he said. “I was hesitant at first, kind of intimidated. But IB is the reason why I come every day. I don’t honestly think I’d still be in school if it wasn’t for IB and how it challenged me.”
Nowadays, Pierce travels the country helping educators in other high-poverty communities make similar transitions, part of an effort on the part of the international organization to bring its high-rigor approach to more low-income kids. The number of them seeking an IB diploma has nearly doubled since 2010.
But in Seattle, where academically tracked schools often split along racial lines, access to IB is an especially sensitive issue.
“We want to make sure our International Baccalaureate students reflect the demographics of the whole school,” said Rita Green, a former Beach parent who now chairs the Seattle/King County NAACP Education Committee. “We don’t want it to be like Garfield, where you have two schools in one building — one for white and one for blacks.”
Little danger of that. Rainier Beach has few white students. It is paying for IB with a combination of federal and district grants that will last only two more years.
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The number of Rainier Beach students recommended for IB courses next year
Seattle’s other IB high schools — Ingraham and Chief Sealth — spent their district grants long ago and now depend on parent funding or building-level dollars to sustain their programs.
But Rainier Beach has twice as many as low-income students as Ingraham, 30 percent more than Sealth and far less money-raising muscle than either.
“I’m very concerned,” said Nerissa Hallberg, the academic dean. “We’re in this defining moment. But it could all be up in the air when the money runs out.”
Her worry pokes at old wounds, still raw.
Rainier Beach families have long considered themselves ignored by the school district, so two months ago when parents began complaining that IB biology students had no textbooks, their concerns echoed loudly.
Were students getting a watered-down version of the curriculum? Did the high-polish program exist in name only? (Answer: Science teacher Karla Nyquist requested new textbooks after the Christmas break and made Xeroxes for her students in the interim. But parents remain skeptical. And the books have yet to arrive.)
“IB has to mean something,” agreed Paul Campbell, who directs national outreach for the program. “There was a time when low-income schools adopted IB, and it was cosmetic more than anything. A community has to trust that their school is being held to rigorous standards.”
To ensure this, each IB school must conduct a detailed self-study every five years, noting how many students take the courses and tracking their performance. Sometimes those reports trigger a visit from central office staff. Once in a while they result in revoked certification.
Pierce, meanwhile, is trying to rein in expectations among the first Beach seniors to take a full IB course load. That group started at 19 but now numbers eight as some, juggling the curriculum’s demands, have fallen away.
(During its first year Ingraham had seven IB diploma candidates, only two of whom passed all of the tests. At Chief Sealth, five out of 14 first-year scholars earned an IB diploma.)
“Obviously, it’s a nice feather in the cap,” Pierce said. “But our primary measure of success right now is access to the curriculum, not the test scores.”
No need to sell Justin Jones, 15. He has never been on an airplane before, but will fly to Spain this summer as one of 10 Rainier Beach students discussing global technology with other college-bound kids at the IB World Conference in Barcelona.
His old classmates down the street at South Shore Middle School would be stunned.
“Most of them wanted to stay away from Beach,” Jones said. “But I really wanted to seek out this higher form of education. Nobody in my family’s graduated college — it just means a lot to me.”
Plain-spoken about his aspirations, the sophomore is typical of students newly attracted to Rainier Beach. The hallways where kids used to roughhouse are now silent during class. Parents who strained to send their boys to Catholic school find their children begging to attend the neighborhood legacy.
“I couldn’t believe it, actually,” said Sherrill Vaughan, who considers herself a staunch advocate for South Seattle yet discouraged her son from attending Beach. The old reputation was just too troubling, she said.
Vaughan spoke while watching a block of gelatin soak up pink-tinted sodium hydroxide, listening as Pierce and Nyquist taught an IB science lesson to parents considering the IB route for their kids. At first a gloomy gray, the gelatin cubes turned pale pink, then bright, then Day-Glo.
Intended as a visual representation of cellular surface area principles, for Vaughan the exercise was just more evidence of transformation underway.
“My mind has been changed,” she said. Her son entered the school last fall.