At Risk Students and School Reform: Will High Expectations Be Enough?

Summary: An impressive turnaround in enrollment, academic atmosphere, and graduation rate at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School apparently stems from a decision a few years ago to establish an International Baccalaureate program at the school. While high expectations of student capacity are clearly vital in school reform, it may be that there is more than meets the journalists’ eye in the newly minted Rainier Beach experience.
Rainier Beach High School sits in a troubled area in the south end of Seattle. Heralded as an incubator of college and pro basketball players, its academic reputation had shrunk and its student body seemed to be withering away, as academically ambitious and resourceful families in the area found ways to send their kids to schools with a higher scholarly quotient.
By the account of another item in the Seattle Times’ excellent series, Education Lab, that dire seeming death spiral has been stemmed, even reversed, apparently by the introduction of the International Baccalaureate program, aimed by its advocates not specifically at the creation of IB graduates, but at upgrading the academic standards of the entire student body. By anecdote, the atmosphere in the school has turned more scholarly. Each student in their junior year is required to attempt an IB junior English class.
Overall school enrollment has risen substantially, from a total 366 in the 2011-12 school year, to 500 in the 2013-2014 school year, and to roughly 660 in the current school year.
Moreover, the graduation rate has jumped from 54% of enrolled seniors in 2012 to 79% in the class of 2014. Pretty impressive. Claudia Rowe’s article reflects the growing self-confidence evident in the stories parents and students and staff tell about the turnaround.
There is a caveat. With the rise in enrollment, and given the heretofore lowly enrollment in the senior class and its historically abysmal graduation rate, it would take only the additional enrollment of perhaps 40 to 50 capable new students in the Rainier Beach senior class, drawn by IB, to raise the graduation rate to its 2014 high water mark, without substantially improving the lot of those whose poor academic profile generated the poor track record of Rainier Beach in the first place.
From the article, we do not know the fate or the rate of change in this latter stratum of students, nor could we without a fairly sophisticated and expensive in depth study that probed individual lives.
It is the fate of this latter group that urban school reform most fundamentally targets, and which has been the most difficult to crack. In Rainier Beach’s case, it is important to gauge which groups have prospered academically and to what degree, beyond those kids who transfer in who may have been already successful elsewhere.
Of course high academic expectations are an important pillar in any change strategy. I remain convinced from my work as a counselor with at risk high school kids that their internal belief, or lack thereof, in their own academic and personal efficacy was a critical factor in whether or not they ultimately succeeded in school. Surely a climate that communicates “you can do this” is an important milieu in which to effect change in the hearts and minds of at risk kids.
Moreover, it is no small feat to resurrect a school from the dungeon into which it had apparently descended.
While I am persuaded that something substantial is happening at Rainier Beach High School, there are other pillars necessary to such change. To focus solely on high expectations is to run the risk of amplifying an overly simplistic message.
For example, could quality leadership and school culture already have created a medium in which the IB move at Rainier Beach could flourish?
Also, in my informal tracking of successful school reform efforts, I have yet to find one that succeeds without non-academic and academic support for at risk kids, usually funded by outside government and foundation sources. The national at risk youth organization, Communities in Schools (as well as Planned Parenthood), operates in Rainier Beach.
The danger of high academic expectations, as with any singular such focus on one element (high stakes testing is another), is that the concept seems a simple solution to what are in reality a vexing and complex set of issues. Politicians, or corporate conservatives, or wayward educators, can make one or the other of these tactics into an illusory magic wand, simple to advocate, but relatively useless in isolation from other tactics, such as attention to the social needs and personal dysfunction of the kids we are trying to reach.
Support beyond the classroom teacher costs money, which power brokers and the voting public are loath to produce in any abundance. By comparison, testing and high expectations are easier to grasp and may be seen as cheaply productive.
The irony is that even high expectations have a price tag. The IB program at Rainier Beach is supported by federal and school district grants that will run out in another couple of years. Similar IB programs at other Seattle high schools now must be funded out of parental efforts, without school district support. Meanwhile, Rainier Beach resides in a significantly poorer community then others challenged by IB funding, so its renaissance via IB may soon enter critical care.
It would be cheap to charge that the Seattle School District fiddles while Rome burns. The truth is there is not enough money to go around, but so far the District has apparently remained silent to the implicit challenge posed by the Education Lab article.

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