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Originally published March 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 3, 2008 at 6:36 AM

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Renaissance for Rainier Beach High School?

Rainier Beach High School's enrollment shrank to 361 students this year. From the district's perspective, it's a dangerous trend that could...

Seattle Times education reporter

Rainier Beach High School's enrollment shrank to 361 students this year. From the district's perspective, it's a dangerous trend that could spell the school's demise.

From the perspective of the school's uncrowded hallways, a different tale emerges. Principal Robert Gary Jr. knows students' names -- and their parents' names, their attendance records and test scores, the color of their track shoes and how they did at last night's basketball game.

The result of all that individual attention is striking. Test scores are climbing: Last year, a higher percentage of African-American students there passed math on the state's high-stakes WASL than at any other high school in the district. District leaders are taking notice and infusing the school with a new performing-arts program and more rigorous courses.But the school's salvation depends on whether it can market itself to a neighborhood that has largely abandoned it.

"The future is bright for Rainier Beach," Gary said. "Our goal is just to get out there and let people know that we're changing. We're building on some of the small improvements we've had."

This isn't the first time district officials have forecast a renaissance at Rainier Beach. In 1999, district officials were setting up a reform plan to boost enrollment, which had declined to 812 students. Most high schools in Seattle enroll at least 1,000. At fewer than 400 students this year, Rainier Beach is smaller than many of the district's elementary schools.

The school continues to wrestle with a reputation that it's a dangerous place. Located in Seattle's South End, an area known for guns and youth violence, the school is sometimes unfairly associated with gangs and drugs, administrators say.

"It's like, how do you get the word out that a school or a program is good quality if the perception is from 15 years ago or 20 years ago?" said School Board President Cheryl Chow.

As the school's budget has shrunk along with its student body, so have academic options. Electives are almost nonexistent. The performing-arts center sits empty most of the time. Most of the school's students live in poverty. About 65 percent don't live with both parents. Many of them enter high school behind academically, and 95 percent of them are students of color, mostly African American.

Rainier Beach alumnus Heidi Henderson-Lewis is an education ombudsman for the Governor's Office who, as part of a grant several years ago, worked to improve family involvement in the school. She lives in the neighborhood, but her ninth-grade daughter attends private school. The family's not alone. Of more than 1,600 students whose closest high school is Rainier Beach, fewer than 250 of them go there.

"The more that kids feel hopeful about their future, they realize that Rainier Beach doesn't have the programming that they need," she said. "I think parents who are savvy in that neighborhood, they're savvy enough to figure out how their kids can not go to Rainier Beach."

Students accept challenge

But savvy student leaders are determined to beat that reputation, and they have played a key role in Rainier Beach's turnaround. Gary took over as interim principal when this year's seniors were freshmen. They are the class of 2008 -- the first class required to pass the writing and reading Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to graduate.

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This year's seniors took that seriously, attending extra study sessions, working hard, and changing the culture at the school: It's OK to ask for help, and it's up to students to choose to be successful.

"People don't just come here to come here," said Andrea Jones, 17, a senior class officer. "People come here to build a better tradition in their families. It's not just changing Rainier Beach's reputation. It's to change our families' reputation."

The Rainier Beach Vikings' four state basketball championships -- they will compete for a fifth this week -- have brought the school much recognition for athletics. Student leaders want the school to be known for academics in the same way.

"We're basically proving to the community that we're more than just a small black school," said student-body Vice President Brittany Morris, 17. "You can't choose your circumstances, but you can choose to overcome them."

In 2005, only 6 percent of black students at Rainier Beach passed the math portion of the WASL. No other comprehensive high school in Seattle had as high a failure rate. But in 2007, more than 35 percent of black students at Rainier Beach passed the same test -- the highest success rate among black students, as a group, at any high school in the district.

Scores on the reading and writing portions of the test are on the rise at Rainier Beach, as well, with passage rates closing in on the state and district averages more quickly than at other Seattle high schools.

To improve scores, the school is offering help to juniors and seniors who didn't come close to passing their 10th-grade WASL.

When Gary became principal, he shifted the school's budget to pay for additional teachers in core subjects, dropping electives. Working with his staff, he launched an after-school program for students who need to pass the WASL. Every Tuesday, students gather in the lunchroom, where he divides them into groups and sends them off for an hour of WASL prep that is half pep talk, half review session.

Rainier Beach also separates students by gender for "group," weekly counseling sessions where students meet to talk about conflict resolution, their families, their goals -- just about anything.

Last month, nine sophomore boys talked through a typed list of questions with drug and alcohol counselor Robert Smith. Are you frustrated because you have not experienced academic success? Do you have low self-esteem? Do you want to be loved?

One by one, the students opened up about their goals, their families, their opinions about manhood and their own fathers.

"Most of the kids who go through the groups, they end up going to a four-year university," said Smith. "I have always felt that our kids need to come to group and settle down and talk about some things."

Today, teachers hopeful

In the 1980s, Rainier Beach was home to the district's gifted program, Horizon. Enrollment topped 1,000 students. But desegregation efforts in the late 1980s began to drain enrollment. The district capped the number of minority students that could attend Rainier Beach, resulting in a 200-student waiting list of kids who weren't allowed to attend. They opted into North End schools, but North End students didn't come south. The school's arts program shrank, and then the district moved the gifted program.

"We went to School Board meetings fighting for them," said Michelle Jacobsen, a longtime teacher. "You had a perception that the school was losing students because of the staff, but the reality is, we couldn't have the students that wanted to come here."

The school languished under former principal Marta Cano-Hinz, who headed the school from 1993 to 2000. For months, a group of parents picketed weekly for Cano-Hinz's removal until, in 2000, the district paid her a $170,000 settlement to retire early.

Today, teachers who struggled through that period are hopeful about two major initiatives: adding more rigorous courses and making Rainier Beach a performing-arts-focused school. Last summer, Rainier Beach teamed up with Broadway Bound Children's Theatre, a Seattle nonprofit, to produce the musical "Dreamgirls" in the school's 10-year-old performing-arts center. Broadway Bound will return to the school this summer, and next year will provide staff training and an after-school program.

"Our vision is to create the best performing-arts program in the nation at Rainier Beach," said Carri Campbell, the visual- and performing-arts manager at Seattle Public Schools. The program launches in the fall with professional development for teachers and additional staffing.

In addition, Rainier Beach is slated to have 10 Advanced Placement courses next school year, up from three this year.

Will rigor and a special program finally draw neighborhood students?

"We have some great work going on here by teachers, but we want somebody that's new to be able to walk into Rainier Beach and understand what we're doing," Gary said. "Parents should walk in and think, 'My child can get the same type of education they can get at Garfield or at Roosevelt or at Nathan Hale.' That's pretty much been my pursuit.

"It's just a critical time for Rainier Beach."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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