Rainier Beach Reinvented
Walking through the halls of Rainier Beach High School, it’s impossible not to notice the
inspirational murals covering the walls. The formidable faces of painted Vikings—Beach’s
mascot—stand in contrast with collages depicting prominent African-American leaders and
stylized graffiti lettering proudly spelling out “Rainier Beach.” The art contributes to what
students, teachers, and administrators alike describe as the family-oriented culture of Rainier
Beach: a sense of community easily fostered by the fact that Rainier Beach, with a capacity
of 1200, currently has less than 400 enrolled students. Yet Rainier Beach’s numerous empty
classrooms—another result of its under-enrollment—are as noticeable as its murals.
Rainier Beach’s persistent low enrollment is caused by its reputation: poor past leadership,
socioeconomic inequality, and a negatively reinforcing cycle of low test scores and low
enrollment Many hope this is coming to an end. On top of rising test scores and and a
charismatic new principal, in the Fall of 2013 Rainier Beach will become the third high school
in Seattle to adopt the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) program. According to the
IB organization, the Diploma program is an optional rigorous curriculum designed to prepare
students for “success at university and life beyond” by teaching “effective participation in a
rapidly evolving and increasingly global society.”
Though supporters predict that it will increase enrollment and enhance its academics, critics see
it as the latest in a long line of idealistic attempts to improve south-end schools that have seen
Because of economic degradation, an influx of minorities, and gentrification, the demographics
of southeast Seattle have shifted significantly since the 1970s, which has greatly impacted
schools in the area, like Rainier Beach. In 1970, southeast Seattle was 69% white, 14% black,
16% Asian, and 1% other. By 2010, the makeup was 31% white, 22% black, 35% Asian, and
12% other, making the encompassing 98118 zip code one of the most diverse in the country.
At the same time, enrollment in the Seattle School District plummeted, from its peak of 99,236
students in 1962 to 39,087 in 1989. This led to many school closures, mostly in the north end.
Many south-end students bused to north-end schools to fill empty seats under a voluntary
student assignment plan from the mid 80s to the mid 90s.
School Board Vice President and Southeast District Director Betty Patu remembers that era
well: “When the north end had smaller enrollment they shipped kids from down here and put
them up there because they wanted their school to stay open.” Patu said that this led to a
decrease in Rainier Beach’s enrollment.
According to School Board candidate-turned Seattle Public Schools critic Charlie Mas, this
decrease was compounded by the leadership of Marta Cano-Hinz, who was principal from
1993 to 2000. She was criticized for her authoritarian style and her inability to improve Rainier
Beach’s declining test scores, and as a result, said Mas, she “lost the confidence and respect
of the community.” Parents and community members staged frequent protests against her,
resulting in Cano-Hinz agreeing to resign in January 2000 after the district offered her a two-
year severance package of $173,507, an amount much more than severances for most public
high school principals.
“When you put the wrong leader in a school, the school falls apart,” said Patu, “that’s how this
school started to fall apart.”
Between 2000 and 2011, Rainier Beach went through two principals, and even a co-principal in
2010, but enrollment continued to decline, from 683 students to 361.
Because schools receive much of their funding on a per-pupil basis, the decline in enrollment
resulted in a dramatic decrease in Rainier Beach’s budget, forcing cuts to many elective
classes to fit their shrinking population and funding. During the same time period, the number
of students receiving free or reduced lunch, a general indication of a school’s student poverty
level, increased from 51% to 82%.
Rainier Beach’s test scores, long criticized for being below the district average, have actually
seen some significant increases in the past decade. The percentage of 10th grade students
passing the reading portion of the WASL or HSPE increased from 22.3% in 1998 to 53.6% in
2011. Writing scores saw a similar but more pronounced trend, going from 16.9% in 1998 to a
high of 92.7% in 2007 – one of the highest rates in the District. Math scores were more stagnant,
going from 10.4% in 1998 to 14.1% in 2009.
According to the 2011-2012 enrollment report, of the approximately 1600 students in the
Rainier Beach attendance area, only 322 are enrolled at Rainier Beach High School. That rate
– approximately 20% – is staggeringly low compared to 64% for Hale and 75% for Roosevelt.
Every other Seattle high school had a rate above 50%.
Despite the considerable test score increase, former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson
proposed closing Rainier Beach and merging it with Cleveland High School in 2008 in response
to the district’s $37.1 million budget shortfall. The proposal was quickly rescinded after a
community outcry, fears of the schools’ rival gangs interacting, and threats of an NAACP
lawsuit, but rumors of Rainier Beach’s closure dogged the District for years until Interim
Superintendent Enfield announced that Rainier Beach would not close in the near future.
The Reality of Rainier Beach
The average per-capita income of the 98118 zip code, which encompasses Rainier Beach and
much of Rainier Valley, is $25,737, much lower than Seattle’s average of $41,695. Because
crime often gravitates towards areas of low income, the Rainier Beach neighborhood is one of
the most violent in the city. Based on SPD data from 2011, residents of Rainier Valley are 4.7
times more likely to be victims of armed robbery or assault than residents of North Seattle and
2.7 times more likely than residents of New York City.
The intersection of Rainier Avenue S and S Henderson Street, which borders Rainier Beach
High School, has been cited both by the SPD and by a comprehensive George Mason
University study as a juvenile crime and gang “hot spot.” Such hot spots, though constituting
less than 1% of its street corners, account for 50% of Seattle’s juvenile crime.
In 2012, there were 2 gang or drug-related homicides within 0.3 miles of Rainier Beach High
School. In 2011, there were 3 homicides within approximately a mile of Rainier Beach, there
were none in 2010, and two each in 2008 and 2009.
Despite the surrounding violence, staff and students make a distinction between Rainier Beach
High School and its neighborhood.
“If something happens outside, down the street, it reflects back on the school and shows that
the school is bad when really it’s the community around it,” said senior Jaquer Baker.
Dwane Chappelle, who became principal in 2011, agrees. “It’s unfair that what we kind of
get the blame for what happens out there on Rainier and Henderson. When people in the
past would see or would hear what goes on out on the streets, it affected the school because
everybody wants their kid to be in a safe environment, but when you go back and look at it,
we’re a safe school.”
Baker shares Chappelle’s conviction. “I will defend this school to my grave. Rainier Beach is
actually not what it’s said to be in the media . . . it’s family oriented,” said Baker.
“I moved to Seattle just last year,” said Rainier Beach IB organizer Michael Braun. “And when
I first told people where I was working they would give me these looks, like ‘there’s monsters
there, no one can go to school there,’ and coming to the school it’s a completely different school
from what people think. I think the reputations for anything tend to be about 7 years behind.”
Another tireless supporter of Rainier Beach is its PTSA. In August 2012, Rainier Beach PTSA
President Carlina Brown was flown to the White House to receive the national Champions of
Change award, a designation given to “ten Americans for their work promoting educational
excellence for African Americans in their communities.”
“Anywhere you go, our Rainier Beach PTSA is doing something, promoting the school in a
positive way, making sure the equity is there . . . that we’re given our fair share at Rainier Beach
High School,” said Chappelle.
Yet Mas believes this “equity” is anything but.
“It looks odd for a school like Rainier Beach to have so much funding and staff while The Center
School and NOVA, which are almost as big [in terms of enrollment], are allocated only a fraction
of the staffing.”
Last November, 300 of Rainier Beach’s approximately 400 students held a walkout to demand
equity, protesting Rainier Beach’s lack of access to BEX funds, which have renovated or
remodeled every other Seattle high school, including Nathan Hale. Though there have been
renovations to the library, earthquake-preparedness improvements, and a new Performing Arts
Center at Rainier Beach High School, it is housed in the same building it was when it was built.
“All the other high schools received rigorous programs and fully renovated buildings,” wrote
protest organizers Kunar Nessenbaum and Brett Leslie in the protest’s press release. “Our
classrooms have not been updated since 1960! We still have chalkboards, heater radiators, old
window panes, and hazardous floor tiles and walls.”
“A new building is important,” agrees Patu. “You can have great programs, but if your school
looks like crap it’s not going to work. Look at all the successful schools: they’ve all had
Currently, Rainier Beach is not scheduled to receive BEX funds in the future, but there is an
effort to include it in the Buildings, Technology, and Academics (BTA) IV Levy that Seattle
voters will approve or reject in 2016.
Patu sees the inequity in Rainier Beach’s funding as part of a larger issue.
“These kids have never had a fair opportunity to get anything they want. Why? Because it’s a
district where parents are not yelling the loudest. Because this community is so diverse and
there’s so many low income and different ethnic groups here that don’t understand how the
system works, we don’t have that many parents who participate and yell and scream about the
things that are happening to their kids. Are we providing the best education we can here? No
we’re not. For me, that’s unacceptable.”
But she is confident that getting the IB program will change that.
“We need something like that over here, we need to push that program over here, it’s been very
successful at Sealth, very successful at Ingraham, and I believe that if we do our thing right here
at Rainier Beach, if we start looking at all the things that make a successful school, we will see
the same thing happen at Rainier Beach High School.”
The IB program:
The IB Diploma program currently operates in 2,191 schools around the world, and is geared
towards juniors and seniors, focusing on what Braun calls “deep analytical thinking.”
The IB Diploma curriculum is made up of 5 subject areas: Language Arts, a second language,
humanities, experimental sciences, and mathematics and computer science. Students also
must take a 6th class, either doubling up on one of the previous subject areas or taking an arts
class. This makes for a very full course-load, which has been criticized for a lack of electives
To receive an IB Diploma, students must receive passing grades on final exams for every class
and write a passing 4,000-word independent research paper on a topic of their choice, among
other things. They must also participate in approved extracurricular activities for at least 150
hours total during their junior and senior years. Students who fail complete one or more of the
requirements or have chosen to take only certain IB classes and not go for the full diploma still
receive IB certificates acknowledging the classes they completed.
Despite the program’s intensity, Chappelle believes its benefits are well worth its academic rigor
for Rainier Beach.
“I think that IB coming to the school is going to really help increase not only just student
involvement, but also the number of students getting into college. It’s just another avenue for us
to take to help kids and open up doors for them.
Unfortunately, since IB is a relatively new program, many colleges don’t accept individual
IB classes for college credit on the level that they accept AP test scores, even though most
colleges acknowledge the rigor of an IB Diploma.
Another criticism of the IB program is its cost: $23,000 in school application fees over 3 years,
$10,400 annually per school, and for students, a flat $145 for test registration plus $100 per test.
So will IB improve Rainier Beach?
In the 4 years since Chief Sealth International High School received the IB program, their
enrollment increased by 400, to the point of overpopulation according to The Kaleidoscope,
Chief Sealth’s student newspaper.
Chief Sealth IB Coordinator Valerie Orrock said that the enrollment increase is “due to a number
of factors . . . the IB program is just one of them.”
Orrock said the IB “experience was good, it made us look at everything we did and be more
intentional about how we did it.”
But Mas doesn’t think the program will be effective.
“The district has paid a lot of money to establish AP classes at Rainier Beach and they are
paying a lot to maintain them. The classes are, for the most part, kinda empty. So the idea of
creating rigorous academics at Rainier Beach has been tried already and it isn’t working,” he
Official statistics dispute Mas’s claim about “empty” AP classes, but shed light on a possibly
more substantial problem. According to Rainier Beach’s 2011-2012 school report, 41% of
students took at least one AP class, and of the students who took AP tests, only 8% passed one
Even so, Mas doesn’t agree that IB will increase Beach’s enrollment or improve its academics.
“The absence of academic challenge is not keeping [students] away from Rainier Beach. There
is little local demand for IB. I don’t think the IB program will attract many students from outside
the attendance area. People who don’t live in the Rainier Valley tend to be reluctant to send
their children there. You can call it racism or classism, but middle class families who love their
high performing students don’t put them—unattended—on a Metro bus in the Rainier Valley.”
Braun, an experienced IB educator, disagrees.
“This is my sixth school teaching IB,”said Braun. “The first school I was teaching at had some
negative impressions, so this seems very familiar to me, but I have also seen how the program
can transform a school, so I feel very confident.”
The University of Chicago recently studied Chicago’s IB schools, many of which were
struggling when they received the program, and found that “students who completed a Chicago
neighborhood IB program were more than 40 percent more likely to attend a four-year college
and 50 percent more likely to go to a selective or better college than similar students.”
“One of the criticisms was, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s not going to be enough qualified students
to participate in the program, and this program is going to actually undermine the other magnet
schools and their magnet programs,’” said Paul Vallas to CBS Chicago. Vallas, the former CEO
of Chicago Public Schools, was a main proponent of instituting IB in low performing Chicago
schools. “Well, we proved our critics to be wrong,” he said.
Chicago’s, and other similar IB success stories, give supporters of Rainier Beach hope for its
Still, despite the optimism of IB pushing the school past its troubled history and violent
neighborhood, Principal Chappelle has, and always will have, confidence in his school, saying:
“I invite any person to Rainier Beach High School. Remember, in the halls of Rainier Beach
there are no strangers. Come on up any time, come visit classes, come visit me, just walk
around and tour the school, people will be impressed by what they see, by what’s going on