Rainier Beach High School has risen from the near-dead. What they didn’t do is as notable as what they did.
The news that long-maligned Rainier Beach High School has boosted its graduation rate by 25 points, so that it suddenly tops both the citywide and state rates, is thrilling.
It’s the latest in a long line of unheralded — even ignored — stories about the resurgence of this city’s public schools, at a time when other big urban school districts around the country are struggling.
But what’s especially revealing is how Beach did it. Or rather, how they didn’t do it.
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The rejuvenation of Seattle’s smallest, most troubled high school had nothing to do with charters, or vouchers or school choice. It wasn’t about teacher accountability, and the article never mentioned unions pro or con.
Nor did Beach give every student an iPad, jokes Colin Pierce, a language-arts teacher there who helped bring about the transformation. It didn’t “hand over the education duties to private contractors,” or start a multiple-choice horse race.
“The idea from day one, for everyone, was to try to make this a homegrown, community, public-school effort,” Pierce said.
As detailed in the story Tuesday by Seattle Times education reporter Claudia Rowe, the actual magic formula to Beach’s turnaround is as old school as school itself: high expectations, hard work.
Four years ago when Beach was named one of the state’s lowest-achieving high schools, the district and the community decided to apply for a special grant from the state to bring in an International Baccalaureate advanced learning program.
But rather than have it be an academy within the school that would attract higher-achieving students to attend Beach, Principal Dwane Chappelle and Pierce instead picked a simple, democratic goal: Every kid would take at least one IB course.
They then made certain of that by converting the curriculum so the only offering for the required 11th-grade language-arts class is an International Baccalaureate course.
“What it means is that everyone at Rainier Beach now is in the IB program at some point or another,” Pierce says. “Some take just that one class, some three or four, some go on to get the full IB diploma. But it’s not an option not to take at least one.”
The point was to raise the bar not just for the highest-achieving students, but for everyone at the school. You backstop the advanced learning requirement with on-site tutoring, guidance counselors and plenty of support and wham — that’s how you get a 25 percent rise in your graduation rate.
OK not wham, more like slog. It’s hardly radical, think-tank stuff, I say to Pierce.
“It’s believing the kids can do the highest levels of work, and then giving them all the help they need when they struggle. It’s slow, sustained attention. I know it’s not radical. But it’s what actually works,” Pierce said.
Of course slow, sustained attention is not a strong suit of our political system. Right now in Olympia legislators are in a pitched, ideological fight again over requiring that standardized test scores be used to judge teachers. As if that is going to make much of a difference either way.
And in Seattle, despite this success, two high schools already have lost grants to pay for their similar IB programs. They’re relying on parent fundraising to keep going. Rainier Beach is also on a countdown clock, slated to lose its special grant for their IB program the year after next.
It was only six years ago the district proposed killing off Rainier Beach for good. Who doesn’t love a resurrection story? This is the year, when the Vikings finally didn’t win the state boys basketball championship, that they really should be the toast of the state.
But the miracle of this comeback is that it was no miracle. Here’s hoping we’re not too distracted pursuing educational fads to notice that.