Jocelyn Alexander Shaw wants her students to stop settling for less than their best work.
Sometimes that means prodding her students to re-do an assignment. Sometimes that means holding firm when parents ask her to change a grade. Sometimes that means shutting down her English class at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School with a bracing, come-to-Jesus style rant.
A few former students even called her “Shawshank,” she recalls with a chuckle. It’s a moniker Shaw may deserve only in jest — she’s not playing prison warden in her classroom; Shaw’s quick to laughter and easygoing with her students.
But the stakes are high. Nearly all of Shaw’s students at “Beach” are racial minorities. Three out of four students are poor. For a significant number, English is not their first language. If Shaw’s “fussing” and nitpicking rubs students the wrong way, she hopes they’ll thank her later.
“I know what they’re going to be faced up against,” Shaw says. “They’ve got to be better than mediocre.”
Shaw has brought this tough love mindset to a school-wide effort to reverse historic trends that crippled Rainier Beach as recently as 2011, when state figures showed barely 53 percent of the senior class graduated on-time.
The turnaround effort — fueled by a $4.3 million federal grant; and centered around a rigorous college-prep curriculum, the International Baccalaureate or “IB” — is still a work in progress.
But the numbers suggest it is paying off. District officials reported an 84 percent graduation rate to the state for Rainier Beach last year, KPLU has learned. If the state officially confirms those numbers next spring, that would mean the school’s graduation rate will have rebounded more than 30 points in just four years.
I visited Rainier Beach more than 40 times during the 2014-15 school year, and I can attest the work is not over. Getting students to show up regularly and on-time, especially during first period, has been a challenge. Students who have embraced the more rigorous curriculum have found it difficult to keep up with the added workload. Some teachers have admitted to being soft on deadlines for even important assignments.
Rainier Beach teacher Jocelyn Alexander Shaw is just as unsparing in her assessment of her own efforts as she is on her students.
“I’m able to look at the rosy side of it here at Beach,” says Shaw. “I’m also able to see where we need work, where we need to push our kids more and how much more we have to do.
“We’re only in our first couple of years. We’re only going to get better.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: KPLU will broadcast an hour-long documentary about Rainier Beach’s turnaround effort at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12. At that time, check back on this post to find audio.