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Originally published September 13, 2013 at 6:00 PM | Page modified September 13, 2013 at 6:11 PM

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Editorial notebook: What’s behind Rainier Beach High School’s rising test scores

Rainier Beach High School’s unofficial moniker, the New Beach, underscores the bridge from its rocky past to academically bright future, writes editorial columnist Lynne K. Varner.

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IT was too early in the morning for young minds to contemplate death and dying but students in Rainier Beach High School’s International Baccalaureate Language and Literature class rose to the solemn occasion.

They were discussing Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem about a well-known photograph depicting a man falling from the burning World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Students sat at desks, cross-legged on the floor and relaxed on a couch poring over the poem’s last stanza: “I can do only two things for them — describe this flight and not add a last line.”

The victim was hurtling toward death. The poem does not end with death, but with the victim in midflight. The 11th-graders grapple with the lack of closure.

In IB Math, Adam Christopulos’ class looks like a setting from the United Nations. One day, he urged students to think about how math is approached around the world. Yes, numbers are universal. But an exponent here is an index elsewhere.

The school’s rigorous IB program is in its second week but revamped teacher training and improvements in instruction and curriculum began several years ago and deserve partial credit for the school’s academic rise.

While Washington state test scores were flat in reading, writing, math and science this year, Rainier Beach’s scores rose. The rate of 10th-graders passing reading jumped by more than 16 percentage points.

Test scores are just part of the story. Daily attendance is up, suspensions for bad behavior are down. Rainier Beach requires all students to take an IB class and the challenging work is credited with raising academic achievement schoolwide.

Rainier Beach successfully persuaded the Seattle School District to exempt it from forced teachers placements.

“We only bring in staff who want to be here,” says Principal Dwane Chappelle. The state Legislature failed this year to pass a mutual-consent law that would have allowed principals to approve teachers assigned to their schools.

Rainier Beach’s fledgling PTA cannot raise hundreds of thousands at an auction for extracurricular activities. The Saturday school is staffed by teachers working for free. A cadre of community nonprofits run after-school tutoring programs and college-bound efforts.

I have written in the past about Rainier Beach’s academic struggles, inconsistent leadership and meager resources. The narrative has changed for the better. Classes have books, teachers have materials and the curriculum has rigor. We must catch up to the New Beach.

—Lynne K. Varner

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