Deal Saves Rainier Beach High School’s Acclaimed IB Program

by Claudia Rowe

(This article was originally published by the Seattle Times and has been reprinted with permission)

Maybe it was the soaring graduation rate at Rainier Beach High, now among the best in Seattle. Or a few pointed questions from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during her visit to the school in March.

Whatever the reason, on Tuesday, Seattle Public Schools and the Alliance for Education announced a deal averting the feared shutdown of Rainier Beach’swidely acclaimed International Baccalaureate program, which has been credited with injecting new life into the long-languishing South Seattle school.

“We are inspired by the extraordinary efforts and accomplishments of Rainier Beach students, faculty and community and are thrilled to play a role in supporting their continued success,” said Sara Morris, president and CEO of the Alliance, a nonprofit that raises money for Seattle schools.

The Alliance has pledged to kick in $150,000 over the next three years for the IB program. Seattle Public Schools will cover the rest — for an estimated total of about $230,000 annually — and begin searching for ways to sustain the program at Rainier Beach into the future.

The IB, as it is popularly known, emphasizes rigorous coursework with a focus on essay writing and interdisciplinary study. Though it’s sometimes considered a program only for elites, at Rainier Beach all juniors and seniors take IB English, and growing numbers are signing up for a full slate of IB courses, which can confer college credit.

The high-poverty school faced closure for chronically poor scores and dwindling enrollment. But after two years of teaching IB courses, it boasted a 79 percent graduation rate in 2014 — five points better than the district average. Enrollment has continued to increase as well.

This promising record, seeded with a startup grant from Seattle Public Schools, faced a cutoff unless Beach could come up with the money to self-fund its IB program, as is demanded of Ingraham and Chief Sealth High School, which also offer the IB.

Seattle is the only large urban district in the Pacific Northwest offering IB that provides no regular funding for the program.

Fundraising prospects looked dim at Beach. More than three-quarters of the school’s students come from low-income families, and state representatives, alumni and community residents have been pressing the district to step up.

“The Rainier Beach IB program is a proven winner for students and families in our community. We deeply appreciate the support,” said Stephen Nielsen, deputy superintendent. “This is an excellent example of supporters recognizing a need and stepping up to meet it.”

But at Chief Sealth High, the good news for Beach may sting. Every year Chief Sealth scrambles to cover the cost of IB for 413 students, though the school, like Beach, is more than 50 percent low-income. Ingraham High School has a more affluent population, though it too funds IB at the cost of other programs.

“It looks like the district is picking and choosing winners,” said Gary Perkins, who coordinates Sealth’s IB Career Program. “Our demographics are not that different, so I don’t see how you save IB at one school and not another.

Featured Image: A group of students at an assembly at Rainier Beach High School in 2015. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)