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May 9, 2014 at 5:00 AM

A windfall for Rainier Beach, but what’s the hidden message?

Rainier Beach High School Principal Dwane Chappelle gets a look at the cake Thursday that Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda brought to celebrate that the school won a federal grant. Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times.

Rainier Beach High School Principal Dwane Chappelle gets a look at the cake Thursday that Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda brought to celebrate that the school won a federal grant. Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times.

Millions of extra dollars would be significant news for any school.

But at Rainier Beach, with its struggles well-documented and successes often ignored, the infusion of federal money, announced Thursday, was enough to attract a visit from district officials and inspire Principal Dwane Chappelle to play the song “Happy” during afternoon announcements.

Sixty-four schools were eligible to apply for School Improvement Grants because they are Washington’s poorest-performers, but Rainier Beach was the only one in Seattle on the list of 13 recipients. (Fourteen schools applied.)

“It’s about time,” said former Rainier Beach parent Pam Berry, who continues to advocate for the high-poverty school. “Southeast Seattle always gets overlooked.”

Seattle requested $4.3 million, though the final award figure is still under discussion in Olympia. Whatever the total, Chappelle, said most of it will go toward extending the school day, and increasing the number of students enrolled in rigorous International Baccalaureate classes.

But the grant, bestowed only on those Title 1 high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, bears a mixed message: Is it an endorsement of hard-won progress at Rainier Beach, or a statement of how far it still has to go?

Randy Dorn, head of the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, says the funds are essential to improving education — especially since the courts have ruled that Washington drastically underfunds its public schools. Similar grants have helped to boost math and literacy scores in at least three-quarters of past recipient schools, he said.

Yet in Seattle, several previous improvement-grant winners remain on the state’s priority list of poor-performers – including West Seattle Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary and Cleveland High.

“We know they are making gains,” said OSPI spokesman Nate Olson. “But school improvement takes time, and their gains aren’t as fast as at other schools.”

Such vagaries did not appear to irk Seattle School District Superintendent Jose Banda, who’d made a personal pitch for Rainier Beach’s application, and arrived at the school on Thursday bearing an enormous sheet cake.

Notably, Banda said he’d asked federal officials to waive the requirement that Rainier Beach dump its current principal. Improvement Grants are designed to create a dramatic turnaround — meaning that schools must hire new leaders, overhaul staff, convert to charter management or increase learning time and community outreach.

Rainier Beach chose the latter, insisting that Chappelle — a youthful Texas transplant with obvious student-rapport — remain.

“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have applied,” Banda said. “Funding is nice, but at the expense of losing the leadership here, no.”

Chappelle arrived at Rainier Beach in July 2011, assigned to lead a complete overhaul. In three years, enrollment is up more than 30 percent, test scores for 10th grade reading and writing have improved dramatically and on-time graduation rates have climbed by six points, to 59 percent.

By 2017, when the grant period ends, Chappelle wants to see that number at 90 percent.

“This might come back to bite me,” he acknowledged. “But I know we can do it.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: Rainier Beach

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