by Ari Robin McKenna
For decades, the Rainier Beach community watched as other better-resourced high schools got major building renovations, waiting for their turn. Yet as various Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) building levies passed them by, many members of the student population at Rainier Beach High School (RBHS) — which is currently 97% students of color — began to speak out.
From within a building built in 1961, students have been mounting pressure on the district for more than a decade. Finally, in 2019, the school board approved a replacement building as part of the Building Excellence (BEX) V Capital Levy. With RBHS set for a rebuild beginning next summer, the Emerald spoke to four students who were active in different waves of the push to make that happen.
Ahlaam Ibraahim, RBHS class of 2016, is a consulting analyst at a tech firm. She currently lives in Ballard, but Ibraahim stays involved with her high school community. Though she loved her time at RBHS, or “Beach” as locals often refer to it, she remembers becoming aware that something was amiss when visiting other schools — especially in North Seattle — for sporting events. “You would think it’s like a different world! ‘Whoa … you guys have all this? We don’t have that.’”
When four seniors in her class organized a walkout, Ibraahim said, “The whole school came out … I just think that the moment for me, it clicked, ‘Why is my school being treated different?’” Five years later, she can offer plenty of perspective, “I think RBHS is the best case study for systemic racism. From the way the school looks, to the resources given, the fights it’s had to go through. Anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon, and I think that a lot of people [in Seattle] forget that they have inherent biases, and they can’t see Beach in a good light because … they’ve been taught growing up that Black people were less than. A school that’s [majority] Black … god forbid, it can’t be good.”
Ibraahim began showing up at board meetings and giving testimonials that year, and she began posting on Twitter about the inadequacies of their educational setting. She’d post when the water wasn’t working or when the heat wasn’t coming on and students had to bundle up in puffy jackets in class. She believes the rapid spread of this information rattled the district during those years because people in the community began to speak out. Looking back she says, “I was literally a child, arguing with adults on why I deserve to have a working heater, why I deserve to have basic necessities. And I think … yeah it’s insane.”
Naj Ali, who graduated in 2018, is on the RBHS School Design Advisory Team (SDAT), which is made up of school and community members to help guide the design process according to the culture and specific needs of the school. Ali attends Seattle Central Community College, where she is passionate about storytelling and hopes to become a film director who centers the female gaze and tells stories about People of Color. Ali says participating in RBHS’s underfunded theater program awakened her activism. She says RBHS “is what the world should look like. It’s very diverse. It has different cultures, traditions, and different backgrounds from all around the world. Seeing that we didn’t have the funds to live up to our creativity and our passions was kind of difficult.”
Gian Rosario, who also graduated in 2018 and is a member of the SDAT, attends the University of Washington where he studies political science and architecture. He remembers transferring from Cleveland STEM High School and immediately picking up on the difference in school supplies and design at his new school. “Walking into RBHS, it’s like this heavy brick, cement building. Cleveland had views of Mount Rainier. They had stairs going up into terraces. It was just a different feeling.”
Often in Rosario’s family van, Rosario and Ali spent many high school evenings going with classmates to testify at school board meetings at the John Stanford Center. They also were part of a group of students who repurposed the school’s annual fashion show into a well-publicized fundraiser for a building overhaul. “We did the fashion show to send a message to the school board directors, to show that we’re committed to getting this renovation. If you’re not going to pay for it, we’ll try to pay for it ourselves,” Rosario remembers.
Ali, who walked the catwalk that night, says she remembers the evening being powerful. “I felt as though I was capable of doing much more than just this. It opened a door within me, because I was walking down the runway and I just felt so light. I was like ‘Wow, if we can go this far and do this as a community, we can do so much more.’ And imagine if we were given the resources and the tools to go forward … there’s no limitation.”
Miracle Jackson, class of 2020, is at the University of Washington studying biology and hopes to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. Jackson transferred to RBHS from Summit Sierra, a charter school in the International District, but she was born and raised in the South End. She feels the change is long overdue. “I think we’re owed this renovation because of Rainier Beach being the heart of our community. We deserve to see it flourish from the inside out.”
And it’s not just a building, she says, the school’s disrepair played a part in student learning. “The building was affecting student focus … it impacts students’ learning, the productivity within the school — it definitely makes a difference,” she says. Speaking out on behalf of the school, and continuing to be a part of the redesign process as a member of the SDAT, came naturally to Jackson, she says. “Coming from a family that serves my community, it was my job to advocate for my peers and on behalf of the whole student body … Rainier Beach has been a second home to me. It’s like a village. Everybody there I look at them as family. For me to advocate for this renovation is pretty much me paying them back for all the investment that they’ve put into me growing up.”
Jackson hopes this is just the first step in a process for improving life at RBHS, however. “Yes we did get this victory. What’s next?” She stressed the importance of access to high paying jobs and career pathways for RBHS students and to counter gentrification by “expanding resources and knowledge.”
Virginia Bethea, a community advocate and the community lead of SDAT, has worked with students advocating for a rebuild since 2012. She says she draws motivation from them. “They’re always getting negative remarks about our school, the way it looks, and so therefore I feel like that’s how some people look at them when they say they go to RBHS. They do internalize it and it’s not fair to them, because that’s not how they are. They’re brilliant kids. Brilliant, talented, and I’m not just saying this, they really are.”
Bethea knows that the renovations are part of a long history of adversity facing the school. Her mother, Betty Patu, fought against multiple attempts to close RBHS in the 1990s and early 2000s as a member of the school board. Today, she’s happy to report that the design process is on track. The community’s chosen architect, local firm Bassetti, teamed up with Moody Nolan, the largest African American owned and managed architectural firm in the country, and contractor Lydig Construction. SDAT’s partnership with Lydig during the design and build process has a slogan: Build the Beach for Us by Us. She says that Bassetti and Moody Nolan, besides regular meetings with SDAT, have been meeting on a weekly basis with RBHS department heads so that the design corresponds to educational needs. Additionally, she says, Lydig has been “making a serious effort in ensuring that we hire more Black and Brown contractors on this project … It’s unlike anything I’ve seen … The community has spoken up; Lydig heard us.”
Usually, the student body moves to a different, temporary location while their new school is being built, but back in 2013 students established a plan to have an occupied renovation, and their wishes have been carried out by the student representatives currently serving on the SDAT. Students will remain on site during the phased rebuild.
Ibraahim is happy with this plan. “They’re going to be building a school and the students will be on the other side. I find that more powerful because students are able to see the building being built. The builders are able to understand who they’re building the school for.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured Image: Design development draft of the new Rainier Beach High School building by Bassetti and Moody Nolan Architects.
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