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Rainier Beach High works to make elite IB program serve all students

An elite academic program developed at a Swiss private school is coming to a beleaguered Seattle high school where officials hope it will boost enrollment and attract high-achieving students. Now they face the challenge of making the program serve the whole school instead of just a privileged few.

Rainier Beach High School is not a privileged school. More than 80 percent of students qualify as low-income, and minorities make up 95 percent of the student body. But the sophomore class is about to get an opportunity to take part in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program.

IB coordinator Colin Pierce recently met with about 15 sophomores to drum up interest.

“The reason I’m talking to you today is your class will be the first class at Rainier Beach to have the opportunity to take this program,” Pierce said.

Rigor and prestige

Being an IB school means students here can take advanced classes for college credit, whether it’s just one or two, or a full slate of them leading to a specialized diploma. It’s a bit like a liberal arts curriculum for high school, incorporating foreign languages, public service and high-order thinking.

The program is also very rigorous. A full load might mean three hours or more of homework a night, a 15-page paper and 150 hours of extracurricular activities.

The students have a lot of questions, many of which boil down to: “How does the IB program benefit us?”

That is a crucial question for Rainier Beach. The school is currently only one-third full, and the new program is likely to draw in new, accomplished students. But what about the kids already here?

“The dynamic could play out where you get the feeling of there being a school within a school, and replicate the segregation surrounding the school," Pierce said. "The other way that it can happen is that the school can be a workshop for democracy and equality, and meritocracy. And that takes a lot of effort."

IB has been gaining popularity as a way to help turn around struggling urban schools. Two other diverse Seattle high schools, Ingrahamand Chief Sealth, have the program. And a contingent from Rainier Beach, including principal Dwane Chappelle, just visited a pair of IB schools in Minneapolis – St. Paul, where the demographics resemble the population at Rainier Beach.

“Just take a look around,” Chappelle told the sophomores. “Look to your right. Now turn to the left. You see the people in this room? This is exactly what the classrooms looked like. It was students of color. And they were taking these rigorous classes that prepared them to be successful in life.”

More work to do

Not every school has managed to spread the benefits around quite so evenly.

At Chief Sealth High School, bright-faced IB senior Zayla Archuleta is working on a project as part of her diploma. It’s all about tackling the problem of diversity in the IB programs.

“I have been in the classroom where all the conversations lead to one point, because either all the students have grown up together or have the same background. I have seen all my friends drop IB classes because it’s just not as fun to be the odd one out,” Archuleta said.

Archuleta, who is African-American, has convened two focus groups at Sealth. What she’s found confirms something Chief Sealth IB coordinator Valerie Orrock suspected: in spite of continued effort to broaden the program’s reach, IB has a bit of an image problem.

“There was more diversity in the program than people realized. If you look at the diploma students, (there is) not much diversity at all. If you look at the kids taking classes—which are also considered kids in the program, there’s much more diversity,” she said.

Still, Orrock says there is much more work to do. African-Americans and Hispanics make up just 22 percent of all IB participants here, compared to 45 percent of the student body.

Archuleta says many students of color don’t see the program as something for them. She thinks having more supportive adults could help.

“It’s having somebody that tells you, 'You can do this. You can sit in the classroom and you can take an IB class, even if it’s just one,”' she said.

More to Rainier Beach than just IB

And yet Rainier Beach’s Colin Pierce says he, with his red hair and freckles, may not be the best spokesman to sell students of color on the IB program. So he’s been cultivating a group of “IB ambassadors”—true-believer Rainier Beach students and families—to spread the word.

One of them is sophomore Mariah Scott, who is planning to work for the ambitious full IB diploma. She says she’s excited about the program coming, but a little apprehensive, too.

“I think that the IB program’s going to build the reputation of the school and make more people want to come, but it might be bad in the sense that that might be the only reason people come. And there’s a lot more to Beach than just the IB program, and I feel like people should see that,” she said.

That’s something you’re likely to hear a lot at Beach—a school that many here feel has been unfairly maligned.

“Like for example, we have an engineering class that a lot of people don’t even know about. And there’s great opportunities here that people should see, and then people would want to come for not just the IB program, but for also other things,” she said.

'A daily struggle' to lift all students

Success of the new program will not be measured only in enrollment and fancy diplomas. Pierce says it’s also about keeping Rainier Beach from a becoming a two-tiered school, made up of academic haves and have-nots.

“How you push against that really is a daily struggle. And the teachers and the administration and the students all need to believe that’s possible. And that’s one thing that I think we have as a real strength here, is that our staff and our students do believe that that’s possible,” Pierce said.

In fact, Rainier Beach’s principal has already told students that he expects every single one of them to try at least one IB class before graduation.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.