Two parents, two administrators, a staffer, and the staffer's husband sit at a long table in the library of Rainier Beach High School last Tuesday night for the first P.T.S.A. meeting of the year. It's an unusually small turnout, even for a school that has struggled to get parents involved, and has struggled even harder to attract new students. Enrollment has dropped by more than 100 students this year to 355, making the high school about a third the size of most others in the city. But the mood is nonetheless defiantly upbeat as Principal Robert Gary assesses the school's past, present, and future.
"We've made gains," says the bespectacled, 41-year-old Gary, leaning over the table and resting his chin in his hand. "In the last two years, our scores have been just jumping out of the roof." Rainier Beach showed some of the most dramatic improvement in the city on last year's results from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, with more than 70 percent of sophomores passing the WASL's reading and writing sections. "That being said," he continues, "we have to do grassroots efforts."
He holds up a bright-orange flyer, upon which is printed the question: "What's going on at Rainier Beach?" This is the kind of flyer he and his staffers intend to put on car windows at student sporting events and everywhere else they can think of, in an effort to counter stereotypes about Rainier Beach and woo back students. "We want to get on this ASAP," he says, noting that the district's new superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, "doesn't like to move slowly."
The sense of urgency is fueled by a new Seattle School District plan to turn around Rainier Beach and two other schools in the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill environs: Cleveland High School and Aki Kurose Middle School, both of which have been similarly plagued by declining enrollment and mediocre test scores. This so-called Southeast Education Initiative will funnel at least $2.5 million into those three schools over the course of three years. The schools are to use the money to hire additional teachers. Rainier Beach is now interviewing for one drama, one music, and two Advanced Placement teachers in an effort to both add more rigor and create a performing-arts focus that the school's community has wanted for years. Plus, the district has tasked the schools with creating a "signature program."
This is something of a last-ditch effort for these schools. Goodloe-Johnson, a demanding, no-excuses kind of boss, has made it clear that if schools don't show results in three years, there will be consequences. "I have heard the term reconstituting," says School Board President Cheryl Chow. "It could mean totally different staff or leadership."
The clock is already ticking: The schools are supposed to have a transformation plan in place by the beginning of enrollment season in late December. Yet at Cleveland, where noisy workmen still roam the hallways after a move back to the western slope of Beacon Hill and into a new complex of buildings, teachers have only a vague idea of what the initiative is about, even after presentations on the subject last Wednesday afternoon by Principal Wayne Floyd and union representative David Fisher. "They talked in generalities," says history and government teacher Teofilo Cadiente.
In his office, tucked into a doorless, half-furnished space that resembles a construction zone, Floyd notes, "Two weeks before school started, I found out I was going to be principal." That's when the school's former principal, Donna Marshall, resigned for reasons that remain mysterious. So Floyd says he knew very little about the initiative until just recently. Nonetheless, he says, plans are in place to hire three new teachers—for math, science, and language arts/social studies—and to extend the hours of a bilingual teacher.
As for Cleveland's signature program, Floyd says the school is working with a University of Washington professor to develop a "motivational framework." He brings forth a pie chart divided into four sections labeled "inclusion," "attitude," "competence," and "meaning," each of which is supposed to represent a theme that the school should work on. Floyd says the school hasn't decided whether it will adopt this concept as its signature program but is considering it.
Whatever signature program schools come up with, the initiative's most concrete promise is a few extra staff members, which some worry won't go far enough. "We're looking for dramatic change," says Priya Singh, a community organizer for the newly incorporated nonprofit, Community & Parents for Public Schools, which is starting a study group of community members to look at the initiative. "I'm not sure adding a staff member or two is enough to make that happen."
This is far from the first improvement plan to hit the South End in recent memory. Sitting in a Cleveland conference room, teachers David Fisher and Faith Beatty recall at least five previous initiatives at that school alone since the late '80s, each of which was rolled out with a lot of fanfare and a snappy name. In 2003, under the most recent transformation plan, the school announced it was dividing itself into four "academies" with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Somehow, that never quite came off. Four academies quickly dwindled down to three, which have, in Fisher's words, since dwindled down to two "watered-down" academies—even though Cleveland's sprawling new complex of buildings was designed with four academies in mind.
Consequently, Fisher says he is skeptical of this latest plan. "Our scores aren't going to magically go up because we have three new teachers," he says, echoing Singh's concern.
School Board President Chow, who represents Southeast Seattle's District 7, acknowledges Fisher's sentiment. "I know enough about education to know that just throwing FTEs [full-time staffers] is not going to make it happen," she says.
But Chow says she is encouraged by the fact that the district has dedicated an administrator, former principal Pat Sander, to work closely with the schools on drawing up effective plans. And most everyone agrees that the scrutiny of southeast schools is a good thing, even if some would have liked that scrutiny to be extended to other schools in the neighborhood. ("The bottom line is limited resources," says Chow, explaining why it wasn't.)
"I was pretty impressed," says Rainier Beach PTSA President Laverne Andrews, speaking the day after the meeting in which the principal talked about the initiative. The Rainier Beach community has not always been receptive to proposed reforms. Last year, it nixed a district proposal to partner with a nonprofit called the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and create a technology-focused school within the school (see "Schooling the District," Dec. 6, 2006). "Basically we were told their intentions were to come in and just take total control of Rainier Beach," she says, adding that it was presented to the community as "a done deal."
But Andrews, at least, feels that this time the district is coming to the community in better faith. "I'm happy they're finally getting something for us to work with," she says.