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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

May 7, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Warts-and-all: merging an elite program with a high-needs school

Rainier Beach High School (Seattle Times photo archive)

Rainier Beach High School (Seattle Times photo archive)

It’s a deceptively straightforward question, yet akin to the Holy Grail in education: How do you change a school’s culture?

How do you recast its reputation among parents? Supercharge the expectations of students?

An attempt to find answers led a delegation of nine teachers from Portland, plus two students and a principal, to spend a day at Rainier Beach High this week. They had read recent articles and an Op-Ed describing steady change at the oft-maligned South Seattle school, and wanted to see if there were lessons they might bring back to Oregon.

At their home base, Madison High, math and reading scores linger well below the district average, and only 62 percent of freshmen graduate in four years.

Those are problems that teachers at Rainier Beach know well. But their response has been counter-intuitive. At Beach, teachers are now asking more of students, not less. Last September, they began offering the demanding International Baccalaureate program, asking every junior and senior to take at least one of the college-prep classes.

The results, so far, have been encouraging. Enrollment at the school is up more than 32 percent over last May and projected to increase again next fall. Thirteen juniors are shouldering the rigorous, full-IB program, and nearly all are taking at least one IB class. Among sophomores, 30 percent have signed up to try for the full-IB diploma.

“It seems like something positive is happening here, and it’s great,” said Portland math teacher Misty Koenig. “That’s what we’re trying to create at Madison, something positive.”

But her visit was not a chance for pro-Beach puffery. Portland’s teachers asked pointed questions, and Rainier Beach still has a long way to go before erasing decades of poor performance. That was fine with the visitors from Portland. They wanted a real sense of what it takes to merge an elite program with a high-needs high school — warts-and-all.

Lesson No. 1: Be ready to sweat. IB demands almost as much of teachers as it does of students.

Colin Pierce, coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program at Rainier Beach High School, conducts an information meeting before IB began at the school in 2012. Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times.

Colin Pierce, coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program at Rainier Beach High School, conducts an information meeting before IB began at the school in 2012. Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times.

“To sit here and tell you it’s not a lot of work the first year would be a total lie,” said Jamie Kemano, who teaches IB English at Rainier Beach.

While Kemano is a strong supporter, others at the school remain skeptical — in part because they worry about setting up students for failure. Scoring well on end-of-year IB tests can count toward college credit, a significant draw for Beach’s many low-income families. But what about those who won’t reach that benchmark?

IB Coordinator Colin Pierce insists that pushing all students to perform at higher levels — whether or not they take the final exams — is a benefit in itself. The issue, as he sees it, is expectation. A successful program at their school might not confer a single IB diploma the first year, Pierce said, though several students are on track to earn one.

It’s a work in progress, though one with promising hints for the future. While half of the upperclassmen taking Alex Eklund’s IB calculus class were unable to handle the material, freshmen are eagerly asking about advanced courses to come.

So eight months in, can the school claim results?

“Yes and no,” Eklund said. “Having IB has definitely helped our reputation and brought people to the school. That’s tangible. It’s made our curriculum a lot more rigorous, and that’s great. We’re only about 50 percent there in terms of the whole school embracing this. But for Rainier Beach, it was the best option, and now that I see what it’s done, I would definitely do it again.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: Colin Pierce, International Baccalauerate, Rainier Beach

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