Part two of a two-part series
When word came last November that Seattle's Rainier Beach High School was off the "needs improvement" list, Principal Robert Gary Jr. – at the goading of jubilant students – walked right down to the waterfront and jumped into Lake Washington wearing his suit and tie.
In Portland, Jefferson High School is, in many ways, a mirror image of Rainier Beach High: comparable student under-enrollment in a large, expensive facility; predominantly Black and low-income students; a history of low-achievement; coupled with record-setting championship basketball programs.
Both schools have felt the hammer of No Child Left Behind Act threats for low-achievement – threats recently expanded by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
Today, Jefferson's students, administrators, staff and neighbors are struggling to find a fix for this unquestionably beloved institution – even as the neighborhood around it blossoms with shiny new housing projects and a model educational program which flourishes by serving many of the students enrolled in Jefferson.
On the opposite extreme, Rainier Beach has been promised more money and support from its school district, enough to double the number of Advanced Placement classes, build a new drama department and a music program, and beef up its continued focus on math, reading and writing.
Now observers wonder: Will the strength of Rainier Beach's Black community hold? And how can more schools build successful academic programs that reach more students of color – no matter which schools they attend?
"I'm pleased that Rainier Beach has changed and they've moved on to a higher academic standard," says Phyllis Beaumonte, Seattle/King County NAACP education chairperson and a retired social studies teacher from Rainier High School. "But it is my opinion it is because they are preparing for a new area, a new population."
Back to the Basics
Today, Rainier Beach High School is one of only three Seattle high schools not stigmatized by No Child Left Behind law, which uses state-approved multiple choice tests to judge each school's performance.
How did they do it?
Gary – son of storied Seattle Public Schools educator Robert Gary Sr. – has succeeded where few principals around the nation have: using bedrock academic strategies to pull his teaching staff together into a team that worked successfully with students to turn around what had been considered a failing urban school.
Gary says that in his first days at Rainier Beach three years ago, the school's standardized test scores for 2005 were below the success rates mandated by federal law.
The test scores for the 2006 school year were also below mandated levels. "It looked like we would be the first school in the state to reach Level 5," Gary says. "That's basically reconstitution."
So staff instituted a mandatory seventh period once a week, giving extra instruction in the areas where the kids seemed to be slipping the most – math and language arts.
"We were not teaching to the test, what we were doing was providing extra teaching in math, writing and reading to help them with core concepts," Gary says.
At the same time, staff conducted diagnostic testing on the students, a WASL pre-test, and teachers made an organized effort to teach the core concepts across the curriculum – expository writing in PE class, math equations in science class, and so on.
"We had great results that year," Gary says.
So as the school community headed into last academic year, if the students could keep improving their scores – showing what the federal government calls "Average Yearly Progress" – Rainier Beach would be taken off the "needs improvement" list.
Staff kept up the same program, and the students came through with steadily climbing test scores.
Now they ran into a different problem: federal education officials refused to remove them from the "needs improvement" list because of Rainier Beach's student graduation rate.
But because the school registrar had kept detailed records of student transfers going back to 2002 – the year No Child legislation was signed into law – Gary was able to personally track down a majority of students to prove that they had in fact graduated from other schools.
After an appeal to the federal government, the penalties were lifted from Rainier Beach. And Gary jumped into Lake Washington – a symbolic gesture not unlike jumping into the churning waters of school reform — cementing his students' commitment and his community's support.
Why Can't Jefferson Succeed?
Why have none of the decades-old problems at Jefferson High School ever been solved? It's a question that plagues many who have been involved with the school – a school that despite its persistent failings, always evokes a great deal of loyalty, love and wishful thinking on the part of many students, teachers and alumni.
Shamika Newman, an active member of the PTSA, says she doesn't think students at Jefferson are being adequately prepared for college. Several young women she's mentored – who were all top tier students – have come back from universities to attend PCC just to catch up.
"That was an absolute gut punch for me," she said.
Many students told The Skanner their classes are too easy.
Principal Cynthia Harris says students get the same education at Jefferson that they could anywhere else in the district.
"I think they're getting the best education we can offer," she said.
Yet privately, many sources for this story admitted they wouldn't send their own children to Jefferson, including several administrators at Self-Enhancement, Inc. Not because of negative media portrayals, they said, or because of overblown safety concerns, but because school leadership lacks a concrete plan to improve academic scores.
Robin Beavers, SEI's post-high school manager, sends her son to Jefferson's Young Men's Academy. So far, she's been impressed by some of the tactics of Marshall Haskins, and says his retreats with teachers and volunteers has helped instill confidence and uniformity in discipline and education. Harris says she has also held retreats with administrators and plans to hold similar retreats with teachers.
But while these SEI supervisors, many of whom graduated from Jefferson, agree on the school's longstanding problems, they also agree it's possible to succeed at the school. Troy Hollis, SEI high schools supervisor, says he's seen Jefferson students go to Cornell and Syracuse.
Hollis said Jefferson needs two simple things to improve: Keep consistent leadership over a long period of time and start offering quality classes, electives and extracurricular activities that will draw in the 1200 students in the neighborhood who are currently attending other schools.
Only 56 percent of students in the Jefferson neighborhood are eligible for Free & Reduced Lunch, while 72 percent of students actually attending Jefferson are eligible.
"We have a group of students who are highly capable," said one teacher. "I feel most sorry for those students."
Preparing for a New Community
Phyllis Beaumonte is the education chairperson for the Seattle/King County Branch of the NAACP. She's also retired from Rainier Beach High School as a Social Studies and Language Arts teacher.
Beaumonte applauds Rainier Beach's success and is quick to congratulate the students and staff for their hard work.
Yet, she says, there's more to the story. Namely, the long-term effects of neighborhood gentrification.
"People are well-aware that the African American community, due to gentrification, has shifted its demographics, its population, into areas beyond Seattle," Beaumonte says.
As Section 8 and other affordable housing opportunities shift farther and farther out into the suburban areas, she adds, all the gains made in teaching programs, more Advanced Placement courses and better electives will be enjoyed primarily by the children of the more affluent families who can afford to live nearby.
"The NAACP position on a quality, integrated education may be somewhat impacted by that," she says. When the US Supreme Court struck down states' rights to use race in diversity plans, they may have sped up the process.
On the subject of what's needed, Beaumonte is very specific: she wants to see more teachers involved in the national certification program, and more teachers of color in the schools.
"I would hope that everyone understands that there is change taking place in this country," she says, "and whatever changes take place for the benefit of the children, and not necessarily the politics and what's expedient."
Portland Schools Keep Trying
Despite all the official talk of Jefferson providing the same education as other schools in the district, Superintendent Carole Smith has organized several groups to address educational inequities within district schools.
Heading up the Superintendent's Action Team for High Schools is John Wilhelmi, a former interim principal at Jefferson who has a long history working as an administrator in the district.
To say Wilhelmi, Program Manager Sarah Singer and a team of principals and other support personnel have their hands full would be an understatement.
This group is currently examining the equity of education at high schools; the consequences of moving, closing or changing programs or schools; changing student populations; the distribution of at-risk, special needs and high-performing students; the availability and equity of electives, advanced placement and International Baccalaureate classes; and other factors influencing educational opportunities in the district.
The results of the study are expected sometime in June, but don't look for big changes anytime soon. Wilhelmi says even if the group recommends something radical, like a school or program closure or expansion – and for the record, he says they aren't planning on closing any schools – it would likely be implemented in the 2009/2010 school year at the earliest. Next year is likely going to look exactly like this year, he says.
Uncertain funding sources and the allocation of money across the district are also concerns for the group. Changing student enrollment makes it difficult to allocate the right amount of resources to a given school or program. The team is looking for a way to provide sustainability to this structure. And mainly, Wilhelmi says, he's trying to make public education an institution that justifies increased funding from the government.
"We could be doing more if we had more resources," he said.
But as programs are under-funded, and they fail because of that under-funding, it can make it harder to justify increased funding for a failing program – even if the reason it's failing is because of the lack of resources.
Meanwhile in Portland, a shiny new government-subsidized condo development has opened up next door to Jefferson.
Built with a HOPE VI grant, as well as funds from the city and the Housing Authority of Portland, Humboldt Gardens boasts 130 units, 50 of which are offered up as affordable housing under the Opportunity Housing Initiative.
Residents who participate in the program are required to move out, after five years, into mainstream housing.
Spreading across five acres, Humboldt Gardens' lovely, modern streets are like a new neighborhood – one which took the place of the tenement-like Iris Court Apartments.
Of the 81 households "relocated" from Iris Court by the Housing Authority, 27 have returned to Humboldt Gardens.
Beaumonte, of the Seattle NAACP says she's seen it all before.
"Eventually those students who go to Jefferson now will not be there," she says." The school population will dwindle and the school will be closed and renovated and reopened, and the new population will take advantage of that.
"Because what has happened in Seattle is because of the population shift out of the area, anything that's built or renovated in Seattle will be built for whomever comes next."
Principal Gary, however, remains steadfast in his focus on helping Rainier Beach students. This year, for the first time, those who don't pass the WASL will not graduate.
So Rainier Beach's staff is starting to shift gears, again.
"We're dealing with kids one at a time, one on one, individually, Gary says. "That's where my heart cries out the most — now if you're not at a 100 percent passing rate, you'll have to deal with the individual."
He continues,"We're very proud of what we're doing, but there's still a crisis at our school because we're not serving all the kids we could."
In the face of Congress' refusal to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a new executive order strengthening the law's requirements and penalties.
On April 22 Spellings issued proposals to standardize high school graduation requirements and penalize schools when students don't graduate within four years.
Another proposed change to the law requires at risk schools to inform families of their rights to transfer out two weeks before the start of each school year, and also notify families of charter schools in their area.
The reforms sound good, says Washington Gov, Christine Gregoire – but in fact they are destructive in the long term.
"I can see why Secretary Spellings wants to address certain issues with the No Child Left Behind law," Gregoire told The Skanner. "But the problems with the law have to be dealt with by Congress, not by rule-making."
Gregoire said the current federal education law has strayed from its intended purposes of reducing the academic achievement gap and creating standards for school accountability.
"These additional rules go too far and would put a heavy burden on local school districts, and in addition to that, they add to the punitive nature of the law with more negative reinforcements to schools," Gregoire says. "I think the big issue is whether students meet the standards for graduation."
TRUANCY AND EDUCATION
A problem first outlined in a 1974 school district report, attendance remains one of Jefferson's biggest impediments to academic success, yet it appears little is being done about it.
Principal Cynthia Harris says she's keeping track of truancy, and her plan is to increase attendance is by motivating students through building a healthy school environment.
While officially, Jefferson had about a 17 percent absentee rate last year, students told The Skanner that some teachers don't even take attendance.
If they were to actually enforce the tardy policy – which was enacted in March of this year, too late to be effective – teachers say they'd likely see a majority of their students suspended from school.
Two Jefferson teachers say that on an average day, a third of students cut class. That number was reached after an informal survey of 13 teachers over a two-week period.
Further compounding the truancy problem, says one teacher, is the habit of students to visit different classrooms to talk with friends. The problem, many say, is lack of accountability and consistency from the school leadership.
Former Jefferson teacher, Vonda Van Farowe, says she wrote a detailed proposal to the school district about creating a position to deal directly with attendance. She said she knocked on doors at PPS all last spring and summer and never received a serious response from the district
Similar concerns were cited by parents at Rainier Beach High School during the tenure of former principal Marta Cano-Hinz, who held the position for seven years.
She reportedly retired in 2000 with a $170,000 payment from Seattle Public Schools, after parents conducted a weekly picket line calling for her ouster.