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Monday, November 22, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A School In Crisis -- Rainier Beach High School Has Long Grappled With Special Challenges, A Conflict With The Principal And A Bad Reputation - But There Are Bright Spots

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When Mateaa Kendrick told her parents a few years ago she wanted to transfer from the private Bush School to Seattle's Rainier Beach High, they were more than a touch concerned.

It wasn't as though the Kendricks had never pondered public school for Mateaa and her younger brother. After all, paying the equivalent of college tuition to Bush wasn't always easy.

But Rainier Beach? Even the teachers there questioned her decision. No one is under any illusion about the school, ranked as one of Seattle's poorest performing. Moreover, its location on a Rainier Avenue block where pay phones are removed to thwart drug dealing has long concerned teachers and students.

"I wanted (Mateaa) to experience public school, but I didn't want her to lose everything she had achieved so far," says her mother, Leticia Kendrick.

"I knew that the kids (at Rainier Beach) are quite different, maybe a little more aggressive as far as peer pressure goes."

This is Rainier Beach's Achilles heel. Despite many improvements, from a strong technology program and revamped computer lab to a state-of-the-art performing arts center, Rainier Beach continues to be crippled by a bad reputation. That, and a bitter and very public ongoing dispute between the principal, Marta Cano-Hinz, and a group of parents and teachers, has many shying away from the school.

Enrollment, which the district uses to measure parent satisfaction in a school, has dropped at Rainier Beach by 20 or more students every year since 1995. Student population is 812, making the school one of the city's smallest.

Rainier Beach faces some special challenges as Seattle's most diverse school. It has the highest concentration of special-education students among high schools, and many of its students speak English as a second language. Its dropout rate is twice the districtwide average, and it has the lowest rate of students who actually make the school their first choice.

The issues that Rainier Beach wrestles with are not unique to urban schools, just more acute there.

"I will be the first one to tell you that our test scores suck," says Cano-Hinz, the school's principal since 1993. "I'll be the first one to tell you that I've spent sleepless nights trying to figure out what motivates these kids."

South End's ongoing battle

James Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League, sees Rainier Beach's struggle as emblematic of the ongoing battle of many South End schools that have more than their share of students with special needs. Kelly plans to create a partnership between the league and select South End schools that would allow schools to access the league's resources, including individual tutoring and scholarships.

Kelly, however, questions the Seattle Public School District's commitment to helping improve these schools. He and other South End parents say they will monitor their community schools to ensure those schools have the same resources as the schools on the North End that typically have less poverty and fewer special-needs students. Kelly says school supporters plan to hold Superintendent Joseph Olchefske to his promise to help troubled schools.

"The question that needs to be asked is what is the extent to which people are held accountable for students' overall performance?"

The school district's view

Seattle's new chief academic officer, June Rimmer, says the district is committed to helping Rainier Beach and other struggling schools get back on track.

Rimmer has begun putting together a high-school reform plan that could include changing the lengths of class periods if it is determined that students need more time in certain classes. A critical part of that change, Rimmer says, could include creating Saturday or evening schools.

"We've got to create time for students who are struggling," she said.

Rimmer also wants to impose mandatory participation on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). The district was embarrassed earlier this year by the large number of students who opted not to take the standardized test.

Rimmer has told the Seattle School Board, which must approve any restructuring, that she wants to raise the requirements for graduation. In a nod to the importance of science and math in technology, Rimmer would increase graduation requirements from two years of math and science to three years.

"I know that you cannot raise the bar without also being intentional about how you help all students get over the bar," she says. "That's why we're going to have major professional development for teachers."

That development will include training teachers on how to teach students of color and offering leadership training to principals.

Teacher with a can-do attitude

Rainier Beach mathematics teacher Anna Maria de la Fuente is already a step ahead of Rimmer. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, de la Fuente is fueled by anger over what she sees as an unfair bias against Rainier Beach.

She agrees that some of the students need special attention or instructions repeated many times over. But others need merely to be treated as students who, despite issues in their personal lives, are as capable as any student at Bush. And so she coaches the volleyball team rather than see it go leaderless. She pushes her pre-calculus students and cajoles her math students.

And when a group of parents picketed outside her classroom window, using a bullhorn to describe Rainier Beach's shortcomings, de la Fuente invited them in to help tutor in math. The protesters declined her invitation, and de la Fuente dismissed them as naysayers. If you're not interested in helping Rainier Beach, she says, stay away.

"We can sit there and say, `Well this is the best we can do, considering where these kids were,' or we can roll up our sleeves and work," she says.

De la Fuente's can-do attitude is infectious. Nearly every student interviewed for this story could recount being teased about attending Rainier Beach, and some said they enrolled in the school only while waiting for space to open up at nearby Franklin or Garfield High. But once at Rainier Beach, they are loath to leave, citing the school's intimate atmosphere and teachers willing to mentor, and not just teach.

Courtney Scott transferred away from Rainier Beach when her family moved to Maple Valley in the Tahoma School District. But soon she was back, making the long drive to be among what she calls a "diverse and accepting" student body.

"My friend's mom calls Rainier Beach a dangerous school," Scott says. "But that's speaking from a point of view in which she hasn't been here."

Ranks last on several counts

Rainier Beach ranks last among most of the indicators used by Seattle to gauge its public schools. Test scores are stagnant. Absenteeism is the highest in the district. Suspension rates have slowed but are still twice the district-wide average.

The problems at the school have even spawned at least one political career. State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat who represents the 37th Legislative District that includes the school, met with Olchefske, then assistant superintendent, more than a year ago to discuss the school's stagnant test scores. She emerged from the meeting furious - and motivated.

"I'll tell you, I was so angry with the way that I felt the community was being handled that that's when I decided to run for office," Santos says.

Santos now sits on the House Education Committee. The powerful perch gives Santos a sharp view of the academic problems in her district. One glaring example, Santos says, is that the bulk of Seattle's poorest performing students on the WASL live in her community.

"This means that students assigned to South End schools are not getting the world-class educational experience that the school district promised them and in fact must give them," Santos says.

And she is threatening action.

"(The district) will not be able to live with the poor test scores," Santos vows. "That is not by their choice. That is part of the operating principles of education reform, and the state will step in if there are no signs of improvement."

Performing below grade level

Currently, the Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission is setting up a timeline under which the state could intercede in poor performing schools. In a worst-case scenario, the state's schools chief could order the removal of a school's teachers and principal and replace them.

Sixty-five percent of the ninth-graders entering Rainier Beach perform below their grade level. The school has the highest concentration of special-education students and those for whom English is a second language in the district.

Yet, it is Cano-Hinz, the outspoken principal, who has come to symbolize the problems.

A public battle to oust her has been under way for three years. At the beginning of the school year, a small band of parents and some students picketed in front of the school, shouting through a bullhorn. A lawsuit wending its way through the courts accuses Cano-Hinz of disbanding the school's site council in an attempt to quiet her critics.

During the weekly protests, Cano-Hinz invited the protesters in to discuss the matter. They refused, she said.

Cano-Hinz says the site council can be reinstated anytime as long as members agree to follow rules currently being drafted by a committee of teachers and some community leaders. And she dismisses the critics as people expecting too much too soon.

"A lot of it comes from people trying to move us along faster than we can walk," she says. "So many people have tried to make this about Marta. It's not. Marta will go someday, and they'll find something wrong with the next principal."

The protesters' view

Not so, says Don Alexander, a community member who has been a vocal critic of Cano-Hinz. He says the central issue is that some parents and South End residents do not feel welcome at the school. Thus, they do not volunteer or visit there.

"There isn't much parent and student participation there anymore," Alexander says. "This is systematic and endemic, and it's at a stage that has little to do with the school but more with the school system that allowed it to get to that point."

For Alexander, an African American and longtime community activist, the rift is also cultural. Blunt spoken, Alexander worries that problems at Rainier Beach are allowed to fester in part because of its largely black and Asian population and its high level of poverty.

One issue that angered him occurred a few years ago when the school was slated to have an ROTC program. A large parent backlash ensued.

"We don't want our children in the Army; we want them in college," Alexander says.

School, community lacks resources

Among high schools, Rainier Beach has the district's highest percentage of poor students - 48.5 percent - and nearly 60 percent of its students do not live with both parents. District averages in those categories are 33 percent and 42 percent, respectively. These social markers are in direct contrast to Rainier Beach's next-door proximity to Seward Park, a largely upper-middle-class community.

In addition, those who can avoid Rainier Beach often do, in favor of schools like Garfield, with its emphasis on Advanced Placement courses, or Franklin, with its widely hailed drama department. Others choose Catholic schools like O'Dea and Holy Names or private schools.

Moreover, because Rainier Beach is one of the district's youngest schools, it does not have a vast alumni system to tap into. When Ballard High School recently announced that some of its alumni had given checks from $10,000 to $50,000 to help that school's new building plan, teachers at Rainier Beach could only shake their heads in envy.

While Cano-Hinz says she is in the process of creating a strong alumni base, teachers critical of her say the principal's leadership discourages graduates, parents and residents from stepping up to help Rainier Beach.

Teachers criticize principal, too

Most of the teachers interviewed for this story who spoke unfavorably about Cano-Hinz would not go on the record. Nearly all have left the school and are teaching at nearby schools. They said they feared that Cano-Hinz could thwart their career aspirations or that the district would label them as troublemakers if they criticized the school or its principal.

"There is this mentality that we can't work to get better because that would be to acknowledge that something is wrong," says one teacher who left to teach at a North End high school.

"(But) many of the kids have chips on their shoulders. They read in the paper about their low test scores and other problems and they think they're part of the problem."

In a way, the teacher acknowledges, they are.

"At Rainier Beach, we couldn't teach the brightest kids because we were always having to deal with the problem kids."

Teachers interviewed for this story repeatedly cited a lack of discipline at the school. They describe students who frequently enter other classrooms to laugh with friends or linger in the halls long after the bell.

"Every once in awhile kids go into classes where they don't belong," Cano-Hinz acknowledges, and other kids can be punished "until the cows come home" and they'll still be late to class. Now, she says, teachers have been instructed to lock their doors after the bell rings, deterring tardy students and those looking to go into the wrong classroom.

Most teachers love school

Regardless of their feelings about Cano-Hinz, most teachers at Rainier - and even those who've left - love the school and students.

"It was very challenging. It's a rowdy school," says Kevin Hopkins, a former Rainier Beach teacher of French and Spanish, who left teaching to earn more money.

"But don't get me wrong, by second semester I was getting really attached to the kids. I would love to go back there."

Four years ago, the district identified Rainier Beach as one of its weakest schools and promised that the school would either improve or face serious consequences, including the removal of the principal and some teachers. Then-Superintendent John Stanford said a consistently poor-performing school was "license for the superintendent to come in and redo (that) school."

For the next two years, Rainier Beach was provided with what amounted to $12.50 extra per student in supplemental funding. Improvements in test scores and other measures were only incremental.

But the district is offering other lures to make Rainier Beach more competitive. The school now has a $6 million performing arts center and will receive as much as $1 million over three years in federal magnet-school money for arts programs.

A success story

And there are hopeful examples among the student body - such as Kendrick, Bush's loss and Rainier Beach's gain.

The Kendricks eventually gave into Mateaa's wish to transfer, but they included a caveat: The honors student would be responsible for mining from Rainier Beach the educational equivalent of what she got from Bush.

Now a senior, Mateaa transferred from Bush in her freshman year.

"I wanted a larger, more diverse environment," she said one day after school while finishing up some pre-calculus homework.

The honors student says she understands her parents' concern that Rainier Beach might not be academically challenging, but says she is confident she can challenge herself. And so she takes Advanced Placement courses, avoids the rowdy crowd and relies on her 13 cousins who also attend the school to protect her from any violence.

"`I'm doing great," she says.

Lynne K. Varner's phone is 206-464-3217. ------------------------------- Rainier Beach High

1999 tenth-grade test results on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning:

Percent of students who met state standards

Reading Math ---------------------------------------------- Rainier Beach 22% 10% .

Seattle 36% 25% .

State 51% 33% .

SOURCE: Superintendent of Public Schools ---------------------------------------------- THE SEATTLE TIMES

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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