UW News

October 10, 2018

How a community reclaimed its Southeast Seattle high school

UW News

A decade ago, it appeared the final bell would ring for Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School.

Test scores and graduation rates were low. And in a building that opened in 1960 as a junior-senior high school with 1,200 students, enrollment had dropped steadily to barely a third of its original size. By 2008, the predominantly African-American school had landed on the then-superintendent’s list of proposed closures.

Rainier Beach High School in Southeast Seattle was proposed for closure in 2008, but community members rallied around a new vision for the school. Photo of front of school building.

Rainier Beach High School in Southeast Seattle was proposed for closure in 2008, but community members rallied around a new vision for the school.Seattle Public Schools

What happened next, explained Ann Ishimaru, a University of Washington associate professor of education, could have mirrored the story of many struggling schools around the country: a staff housecleaning, a curricular overhaul, maybe even an administrative takeover, all aimed at improving student achievement at an “underperforming” school.

Instead, the parents, students and leadership of Rainier Beach upended the usual trajectory, Ishimaru said, embracing the school and making the effort to save it a community undertaking. Ishimaru studied the school’s transformation and published her findings in August in the Journal of Educational Administration.

The UW College of Education is hosting a related Facebook Live chat at 11:30 a.m. Thursday: Families and Communities Leading Educational Justice.

“There was a very collaborative effort to reimagine what a community school could and should be,” Ishimaru said. “This wasn’t due to any one person.”

For the paper, Ishimaru pored through documents and data and interviewed students, parents and a variety of school and district staff and administrators. The goal, she explained, was to provide a comprehensive look at how a community collaborated and transformed a school with a focus on social justice.

Typically, there is a top-down approach to so-called “turnaround” improvement strategies ­— a federal classification associated with grant money, Ishimaru said. Policies are premised on the notion that dramatic disruption – such as closing a school or firing most of the staff – will improve achievement as measured by test scores.

But that approach ignores the racial inequities embedded in the educational system since the beginnings of formal education in the U.S., Ishimaru said. From segregation and property tax-based resource disparities among schools to implicit bias in the classroom, the fundamental structures and routines of public schools tend to disproportionately close opportunities for students of color, particularly in working class communities. . For the most part, the use of turnaround policies, Ishimaru said, has reinforced a narrative that blames students, families and communities for school “failure”—in short, exacerbating racial inequities.

“We have a set of broader narratives in the public about our schools, and about certain schools, in particular: schools as broken, failing communities, parents as disengaged,” she said. “They function to lead us to certain ideas about what needs to happen to ‘fix’ those schools and communities, and what they completely overlook is the capacity and expertise in those schools and communities to be able to do that.”

At Rainier Beach, news of the proposed closure in 2008 galvanized a core group of parents and neighbors. They organized to communicate the school’s strengths, repurposed the PTA and leveraged their role into that of a joint administration/community advisory committee. With the help of a new principal and an influx of resources, parents supported installing a rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum, a program usually associated with more affluent schools. School and PTA leaders reached out to the community directly, holding meetings at familiar locations instead of flooding the area with robo-calls and letters mailed home. Over time, students took up the social justice cause with the support of local community organizations. WA-BLOC started the Freedom Schools summer program and supported youth leaders in successfully lobbying Seattle city officials for free transit passes for high school students, facilitating restorative justice circles and training teachers on how to recognize and address bias.,

Today, nearly 750 students are enrolled at Rainier Beach, which won a national award for its improvement efforts in 2016. Nearly all y11th-graders takes at least one IB class. And while not every data point is one that traditional reform advocates would tout, one statistic is hard to ignore: In 2017, 89 percent of Rainier Beach students graduated in four years — higher than the school district and state averages.

Ultimately, reimagining Rainier Beach was a years-long process, Ishimaru said, but one that offers lessons for other schools.

“Some of the core ideas could be replicated elsewhere, but the danger would be for a district administration to take this and approach it from the top down,” she said. “Part of the ‘secret sauce’ at Rainier Beach is that it wasn’t just a top-down fix. 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. Powerful things can emerge when educators and local communities work collaboratively across roles.”


For more information, contact Ishimaru at aishi@uw.edu.