Rainier Beach High School’s dramatic gains for students to be featured on HBO’s “Problem Areas”–even as the school is struggling to stop disruptive educator displacements



If you haven’t heard, there’s a new season of Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas” show on HBO and it’s fire.

The show is in the middle of its second season all about education, and its the best exploration of education I’ve seen on national TV. This week’s episode, Friday, May 3 at 8:00 pm Pacific, centers on Seattle’s Rainer Beach High School (RBHS).

I’m so thrilled Rainer Beach is finally getting recognized for its amazing students and educators.  RBHS is the school in Seattle with the highest percentage of Black students, students of color, and low income students–and for years the school district tried to close the school.  I was part of an effort back in 2009 to help save the school from closure.  Because of the courageous efforts of Rainer Beach families and educator the school was saved from a Broad Foundation superintendent.  And because of the same grassroots organizing from students, parents and educators, the school has taken dramatic steps forward.

RBHS rejected the corporate playbook for reform and instead implemented a robust restorative justice program, enrolling the majority of students in advanced classes, implementing social justice curriculum, and partnering with the Freedom Schools program to foster civic engagement and social activism. Rainer Beach has since seen a substantial drop in suspension of students and a 25-point increase in graduation rates, surpassing the district average.

In addition to these important academic gains, Rainer Beach has also become a school that has produced some of most effective student leaders in the city. Take the example of  Ifrah Abshir . Ifrah, a student at Rainer Beach,  knew that cost of getting to school was a major barrier because the school had 82% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.  With the help of the Freedom Schools program, Ifrah developed a campaign–writing, marching, and rallying–for transportation justice.  The two-year battle culminated in the city providing ORCA Cards (fare cardImage result for Ifrah Abshirs for buses and trains in the Puget Sound area) for every student in Seattle Public Schools!  Ifrah won the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award for her efforts.

Yet despite all the success of this grassroots education transformation, Rainer Beach High School is facing the displacement of 4.8 FTE from the school for next year–cuts that would eliminate art classes, social studies classes, English Language Learner Supports, math classes and Literacy and Spanish support positions currently funded by the state International Baccalaureate grant. These cuts are the product of the state refusing to fully fund education, the nearly $40 million budget shortfall in the Seattle Public Schools, and a projected decrease in enrollment at RBHS.  As the faculty have pointed out, however, the district has been under-projecting enrollment at Beach for years causing unnecessary disruptions.  Moreover, we should pause and consider the utter absurdity that in a city with Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, and the two richest people the world has ever known, there isn’t enough money to keep the amazing Rainer Beach High School program intact.

On May 1st, May Day (International Workers Day), the Rainer Beach community summoned its commitment to social justice and rallied against the displacements before school started–despite threats that the educators would be docked pay for missing their before school hours inside the building.  They asserted that every student deserves:

  • Four full years of courses in all core subject areas
  • Culturally responsive curriculum and staff
  • Opportunity to thrive in all subjects, not simply to meet graduation minimum requirements

The rally was a testament to the deep teaching and learning going on at Rainer Beach. Educators and students held signs with information about the impact these cuts will have and graphs showing the inequitable funding.  They spoke powerfully to the education they deserve and are willing to fight for.

One student grabbed the bull horn and said,

Education should not just be numbers but an opportunity–and opportunity for everyone to have their voice be heard. Every student should have their opportunity to learn. Every teacher should have the opportunity to teach to have their voice be passed down to the generations.  I’m sick and tired of being knocked down due to the lack of money…But if we stand to gather we can do almost anything and I’m just prod that there are so many people out here having their voices heard.


Another students read out a statement of solidarity from the Garfield High School Black Student Union:

The Garfield High School BSU stands in solidarity with Rainer Beach High School in the struggle to stop the displacements of educators at their school.  Rainer Beach serves a population of predominantly students of color and they deserve support.  The cuts to Rainer Beach would eliminate art classes, social studies classes, English Language Learner Supports, math classes and Literacy and Spanish support positions currently funded by the state International Baccalaureate grant.  These cuts are unacceptable. There is plenty of money in Seattle, the problem is it’s not being used to help support schools and education.  We may be rivals on the court or the field, but we are with you 100% in the struggle.


Garfield High School Black Student Union

Rainer Beach teacher Tess Williams–recently informed she will be displaced for next year–addressed the rally saying, “I don’t care about me losing my job…Its that these students are losing a whole class that will negatively impact their education.”

As longtime Rainer Beach teacher Mark Epstein said at the rally, “We have the strongest students in this district and when we unite, there’s nothing that can stop us.”

One thought on “Rainier Beach High School’s dramatic gains for students to be featured on HBO’s “Problem Areas”–even as the school is struggling to stop disruptive educator displacements

  1. Natalia Skolnik

    Thank you for writing this comprehensive article highlighting so many factors that created such a transformational school. Rainier Beach High School (and so many other public schools across the country) have faced budget cuts each year – for reasons that have nothing to do with student or staff achievement or enrollment numbers. The budget cuts are simply because the state refuses to adequately fund public education. In 2016 when I knew early on that I would be leaving my teaching position at this school (because my partner’s job moved us cross country), the administrators absorbed my position into the fold so it “looked” like they were not cutting a staff member. But it was effectively cut, as was the journalism elective I taught. The next year all English language arts classes were larger for having one less language arts teacher. This happens every year. But losing 4.8 staff from an already very small and stretched staff there is unfathomable! Cutting all of those staff and classes is another sign of systemic racism. It’s setting up the school for significant setbacks in all the areas the staff, students and families worked so hard to make significant gains.

    Liked by 1 person

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