Photo depicting two Black-presenting individuals in bright-yellow T-shirts speaking to a gymnasium full of people.

The Hopes and Fears of a Former Student Working to Rebuild Rainier Beach High School

by Ari Robin McKenna

While working to rebuild Rainier Beach High School throughout the cold, dark rainy winter, Israel Presley carries up to 60 lbs in his belt and pack. His pack often includes three drills (each with different bits), a double-jack sledgehammer, “cowbells,” “come-alongs,” and a “yo-yo” — a retractable lifeline that allows him to move about the jobsite, but would catch him should he fall.

Presley also carries memories from his time as a student there, spanning a senior year that made him, the faces of those who supported him — many still teaching there — and the wonderfully diverse education he’s hoping to preserve for future generations of Soufenders. It’s these memories that warm him, lighten the load, and keep him focused on the task at hand.

Presley is an apprentice carpenter working on the ongoing Rainier Beach High School (“Beach”) rebuild. He has done carpentry and framing, hung doors, and installed windows and weather protection. Currently, he’s working on a team of nine, building the concrete form for the foundation of a building that will overlook the main athletic field.

Presley has three family members still attending Beach — both of his brothers and a cousin — and walking through the halls of his alma mater before or after work, current Beach students sometimes call him “big bro.” 

Presley, who works and has been attending classes at South Seattle College, spoke with the Emerald at length about his fears and hopes concerning the Beach rebuild and how he believes that the students of color Beach has served for decades need to be prioritized.

“One of my biggest fears is that I am taking part in building a Trojan horse, meaning that the school that we’re building and renovating will usher in the next wave of gentrification,” said Presley.

Beach student activists who have clamored for a long overdue rebuild since 2012 shared Presley’s fear, demanding the “occupied rebuild” now in process. Typically, current students are relocated to another building during construction, but in this case, a phased building process allows students to remain onsite throughout. 

Presley, who attended Garfield before his time at Beach in 2018–2019, points to the illustrious history of Seattle’s Central District (CD) and its high school, Garfield, as a cautionary tale of how gentrification erodes Black culture and alters the experience of Black students. He describes the CD as a cultural mecca full of “legendary people,” including former Garfield students Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix, which has received visits from Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

Yet Presley is all too aware of the rapid process of gentrification and displacement the Central District underwent, one which saw its Black population drop from 75% to 15% in 50 years. Though the student population of Garfield has changed less than the neighborhood it serves, its white students now represent Garfield’s largest demographic group.

Presley muses, “I don’t think our culture feels safe.”

During Presley’s senior year at Beach, he recalls meeting Black Panthers, learning about HBCUs, and acting in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s August Wilson Competition. He remembers the ”free pursuit of anything” and “talking to everybody and anybody.”

“I only went there for one year, but within that one year, it was the most diverse learning experience of my life,” Presley said. “It’s a school where each teacher takes their time with you. You have that privilege at that school.”

Presley recalls visiting “the sweetest woman” Sarah Moges in the library, attending Folasade Brown’s English Language Arts class, as well as how he was supported during a difficult year that included a season-ending football injury and a difficult change in living situations. He says he thought about quitting and “letting his grades fall through the cracks,” but teachers “really went the extra mile” to support him, sometimes staying after school with him until 6 or 7 p.m.

“Rainier Beach represents the last safe haven [in Seattle] for a lot of us, and not just Black people, [but also] Polynesian people, Asian people. It’s one of the most diverse schools,” Presley said.

Rainer Beach High School student demographics. (Chart sourced from U.S. News and World Report, Best High Schools.)

With one of the most intentionally inclusive International Baccalaureate (IB) programs and over 30 languages spoken, including as many as 12 within single classes, Beach also has a promising IB integrated Career and Technical Education (CTE) program and a basketball program that is known nationwide. Presley says that ultimately it’s about time the building and facilities reflect the brilliance of what’s already transpiring inside.

“It’s finally becoming the beacon it’s supposed to be for everybody in the city. It’s getting that exterior transformation that we need to see. It shows that we’re valued,” he said. “It’s gonna be a state-of-the-art facility. It’s gonna be one of the best schools, architecturally, in the nation.”

“Our hope is that our school will stay what it is,” he continued. “Stay culturally diverse. Stay affirming these kids’ cultures. Stay affirming journeys and adventure, keeping them on a course of pursuing knowledge.”

Presley has also found it reassuring that his employer, Lydig Construction, seems serious about hiring a diverse crew in line with its motto for the project, “Build the Beach for Us by Us.” His nine-person foundation form crew is 44% workers of color and contains another Beach alumni, Arlando Norwood, a third African American male, and a Latina woman.

Israel Presley addresses Rainier Beach High School students in October 2022 at the Rainier Beach High School Groundbreaking. His brother, senior Caleb Presley, stands behind him. (Photo courtesy of Converge Media.)

Through its Student and Community Workforce Agreement (SCWA), Seattle Public Schools (SPS) aspires to have 20% percent of the people who perform work for the project be BIPOC and 7% of the workforce residents of an “Economically Distressed Zip Code” — as well as prioritizing current SPS students and their families for jobs. Additionally, SPS hopes to have 20% of the subcontracting dollars spent to hire firms owned by People of Color and 6% on women-owned businesses.

Bobby Forge, hired by the school district as a strategic advisor for equity and compliance, checks Lydig’s receipts and says they’ve been a “willing partner” that is“tracking above that 20% for minority [sub]contractors” required by the agreement.

“The district — through a series of executive orders and the help of some good leadership — have put in place some tools and some framework to be able to show better outcomes related to the participation of women and minorities, both as workers and as contractors in their capital works program,” Forge said. “Rainier Beach is one of those.”

Given what he gained during his student days at Beach and what he has learned from being part of the rebuild team, Presley hopes his fears about the project will not materialize. He suspects the rebuilt Beach will be “instead of a symbol of deceit, a symbol of triumph.”

“The people and the presence that school has will remain immovable … a beacon of hope for everybody in the city; that culture can’t be so easily washed away and bought away,” he said.

“I want to reflect the same type of energy, the same type of attention to detail that those teachers and the staff gave me,” said Presley about his work. “I want the kids who are at the school to see me, and I want them to know: ‘Hey, this is the type of effort that’s getting put into a school.’ I mean, every time I drive a nail in, I make sure to give it extra taps to make sure it holds.”

📸 Featured Image: Israel Presley addressing Rainier Beach High School students in October 2022 at the Rainier Beach High School Groundbreaking along with Beach alumnus Arlando Norwood. (Photo courtesy of Converge Media.)

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