"WE NEED BOOKS!"
That was the startling chant of some 300 protesters outside Rainier Beach High School late last month. A coalition called Save Our Schools, made up of community activists, parents, and students who had walked out of classes, staged the demonstration to call attention to the plight of South End schools.
The protest turned ugly, as some teens stormed a nearby Rite Aid, causing several thousand dollars worth of damage. The reputation of South End schools suffered an equal blow. Although the protesters had several complaints—among them, the displacement of a high school for troubled kids by a new privately endowed school and the Seattle School District's failure to consult the community on choosing a particular principal—it was the lack of books that made people sit up and take notice.
Here was a claim that went beyond the usual hand-wringing over academic "disproportionality," the district's polite term for the difference in achievement between whites and minorities— a complex phenomenon that invites many sociological explanations. The protesters seemed to offer evidence that the district was guilty of outright neglect, depriving kids in the poorer, more racially diverse part of town of the most basic of resources.
"I keep hearing the superintendent saying things like, 'You're in a low- income area,'" says Wilma Miller White, a Save Our Schools participant who has a son at Dunlap Elementary School and a live-in niece at Rainier Beach. "I don't care. My children have a right to a good education."
Yet the insinuation of bias is unfounded. The district does not provide fewer resources to South End schools than those in the North End. It provides more. Since 1997, the district has used a "weighted student formula" that allocates money to each student based on need, with more going for special ed and immigrant kids. District superintendent Joseph Olchefske, who was the chief financial officer when the formula was implemented under previous superintendent John Stanford, says its effect has been clear: "a distribution of resources from the North End to the South, from the white population to minorities, from an upper-income population to a lower-income population."
Rainier Beach, in fact, has the highest per-pupil allocation of all the (nonalternative) high schools, at $5,003 a student. The allocation for Ballard High, a school that many protesters look to as an example of privilege, is just $3,653.
A deeper look at Rainier Beach's financial situation reveals even more unexpected numbers. Last year, Rainier Beach set aside $20,000 for textbooks, according to the district, which delved into the school's budget after the protest. But the school spent only $7,000.
More astonishing still, as of the first week of June, Rainier Beach had $369,000 leftover from last year's budget. That's a huge chunk of change that could have been used for thousands and thousands of books. Or for a performing arts program, the lack of which was another beef of last month's protesters.
"This is not a resource issue," stresses district spokesperson Lynn Steinberg. So why isn't the money being spent? And if it's not about resources, why are people so upset about conditions at Rainier Beach, as well as at other South End schools, that they have taken to the streets? Unfortunately, "accountability," a favorite buzzword of the district borrowed from the business world, is in short supply among those who should be in a position to explain.
A SIMPLE DRIVE across town to Ballard High School helps explain why protesters perceive huge differences between North and South End schools. From first sight, the school makes a dazzling impression. It's in a soaring brick building, only three years old, that was built with money from the district's 1995 capital levy. Inside, it's all space and light, graced with abundant windows, several "wings" lined with classrooms, and striking, original art on the walls; a large charcoal design by famed Seattle artist Richard Gilkey hangs over the library entrance. One teacher fittingly calls it a "cathedral" of a school.
The district has spent capital money in the South End, too, and is slated to spend more, rebuilding Beacon Hill's Cleveland High School, for example. But for now, the new Ballard building stands out, and it has had a dramatic effect on appearances and on the quality and environment of the school.
"One thing that has really struck me is the morale change of the students," says Japanese language teacher Alex Alexander, taking a moment to talk while her students work in groups. In the old building, so decrepit that Alexander says you could literally see a wall crumbling when you touched it, students would spit on the floor. Now, she says, students take care of the building, and the school has become so popular it is already at its capacity of 1,600.
The building has excited adults, too. Outgoing principal David Engle says that a few years ago, alumni formed a fund-raising foundation because of their desire to support the new facility at a level it deserves. The foundation raised about $200,000 last year, adding to the $80,000 raised by the PTSA, which goes toward lots of the extras that can be seen at Ballard. The foundation buys the art, for example. It also paid for a weight room, band uniforms, a computer lab for musical composing, and software for the school's video editing lab.
The foundation and the PTSA step in with funds on the not infrequent occasions when teachers find themselves short of basic supplies. Alexander might have had to ask kids to buy their Japanese class textbooks last year, as she sometimes does, if the PTSA had not come through with a grant. The foundation also paid for software that enabled this year's students to work on PowerPoint presentations.
Energized, the school is ramping up academically. It's Garfield High School, not Ballard, that has historically been the academic jewel as the designated school for students in the district's "highly capable" program. Ballard's language arts department head, Nancy Jones, who came to Ballard last year from the Bellevue School District, recalls being shocked to find only one Advanced Placement (AP) class in her department. Next year, there will be eight. There are also AP classes in American government, European history, U.S. history, calculus, statistics, chemistry, Spanish, and French. In addition, there are two academically rigorous groups of classes in biotechnology and maritime studies.
Not every student is a motivated star on the way to Harvard, naturally. Some in a college preparatory English class taught by Jones one day haven't even done their assigned reading. But others are animatedly applying Marxist and feminist analyses to the assigned short stories. (When one girl asks to be reminded what Marxists believe, a boy earnestly responds, "It's when everyone works for the good of the people instead of, like, the few.") And there do seem to be a lot of bright kids in a student body that, incidentally, has many more black and brown faces than is commonly assumed. Only slightly more than half of the students are white (though it will have 12 percent fewer minorities next year because of a federal court ruling that temporarily stopped the district from using race as a factor in student assignment. Principal David Engle resigned in protest, although on Monday the federal court reversed its decision and kicked the case down to the state Supreme Court.
RAINIER BEACH HAS bright students, too. Student body leaders Dominique Davis and Vanny Chham are articulate, personable seniors who have taken honors and AP classes throughout their school career. (The school has three AP classes—in language arts, calculus, and American history—and honors classes in most departments.)
"Me and Vanny, we work hard for our education," says Davis, who is going to Howard University this fall. "We make sure we're in class. If we need help, we're going to get it."
There are also energetic, caring teachers. U.S. history teacher Chris Drape works hard to engage with his students over a civil rights video he is showing one morning.
"So, what's something you want to know about what we've been watching?" he asks the class.
Silence, then a mumble from one boy: "Why they keep going through with it."
"How would you have responded?" Drape asks.
Another mumble: "Beat 'em up."
A few minutes later, Drape refers back to the mumbler's contribution as a good point about the day-to-day struggle that the Arkansas students in the video faced.
In another part of the building, as ninth-grade honors humanities students draw pictures of aliens for science fiction stories they are writing, teacher Paula Scott explains her philosophy toward students. "I try to push them to take chances," she says. "I tell them that if they don't succeed, to try again. I have a lot of students taking advantage of that."
Yet, as a whole, Rainier Beach's kids are academically behind. More than half of its students read below seventh-grade level, according to a recent internal assessment. Superintendent Olchefske concedes that "teacher quality" is an issue, too. As for the building, it's old and uninspiring, even with a new athletic field and theater. The main "art" on the dimly lit walls are painted wavy lines in blue and red. And shortages are real, despite initial spin by the district suggesting that protesters' claims were exaggerated.
Student after student testifies to the lack of sufficient books in class. Esheila Grinnell is typical. A 10th-grader who chose to stay in a class she has trouble with rather than participate in the walkout, Grinnell says that in her French class there are perhaps 10 books to be shared by about twice as many students; only sometimes is a student allowed to "check out" a book for the night. On occasion, the teacher will use other materials, like poster board with vocabulary words. "But if we don't know a word, she'll be, like, 'look it up,'" Grinnell says. "But then, we don't have enough dictionaries."
Honors student Dominique Davis says when his physics class worked on building catapults, students had to take turns using computers for research because, "there are only, like, three of them that work on the Net."
His conclusion: "You can get a good education here, but it's harder."
Some teachers feel forced to reach into their own pockets. They buy supplemental books and science equipment. Dan Jurdy, who recently became the athletic activities director, said he spent $2,000 during each of the eight years he taught science. To dissect a frog, say, he'd have to spend $5 a frog for the 130 to 150 students he had that year, a cost of as much as $750 for just one experiment.
Jurdy says people have to understand that Rainier Beach's students can't afford to pay a fee for science class or buy their own books, as they would at other schools. Nearly 60 percent of the almost totally black and brown student body is poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch. Nor does the school have a fund-raising foundation or moneyed PTSA to bail it out.
BUT THAT DOESN'T explain the $369,000 that went unspent this year at Rainier Beach, considerably more than Ballard raised through private fund-raising.
Pressed to explain why Rainier Beach didn't use the money on desperately needed supplies, the district passes the buck to the principal. "You need to talk to Donna," is the refrain from the superintendent and his spokespeople. Once the district apportions funding, each school is responsible for spending its budget as it sees fit, following a business-minded reform that strives to make each principal the CEO of his or her school.
Principal Donna Marshall, however, says in a surprised tone of the $369,000 figure supplied by the district: "I haven't seen that amount."
Neither she nor the district, it turns out, has been diligent in keeping track of a complicated situation. A former assistant principal at Franklin and Roosevelt high schools, Marshall arrived at Rainier Beach in March 2000 on a rescue mission. The school had deteriorated badly under unpopular principal Marta Cano-Hinz, who was given nearly $200,000 by the district to leave. Businesses that sponsored programs, like one to train future teachers, had pulled out. Many staff members left. Enrollment had gone from more than 900 in the mid-'90s to less than 700.
As Marshall describes it, her budget for the next year had already been set, based on a projected per-pupil number supplied by the previous principal. But when September came, enrollment was way below the projected number. Marshall received $200,000 more than she should have, and she was told she would have to give the money back. When and how was never clarified. She admits that she didn't initiate such a talk with the district; nor, apparently, did the district bother to inform her of the school's financial obligations.
Marshall simply took measures to cut back. A year later, still feeling that the $200,000 debt was hanging over her head, she laid off a counselor and five performing arts teachers. (She restored two part-time performing arts positions when she discovered that a federal grant had not completely expired.)
"Maybe there was some conservative spending," she says now, upon hearing the district figure giving her far in excess of the $200,000 she had to make up.
Marshall, a bubbly woman with a gracious charm, dressed stylishly on a recent day in a black suit and high-heeled pumps, seems to be trying to answer questions honestly. But she has more questions than answers about a number of resource issues in the building. She says no teacher's request for books was turned down, but she doesn't know why teachers wouldn't have requested more books. "We need to sit down and look at that," she says.
She can't account precisely for the extra money the school receives for higher-need students, according to the weighted student formula. It's superintendent Olchefske who, after running the numbers in light of the protest, comes up with a scenario for where the money is going. He says the school has a better staff-to-pupil ratio than most, at 12 to 1 instead of the more typical 16 or 17 to 1.
In keeping with the philosophy behind financial autonomy for principals, Olchefske describes the school as making a deliberate decision to invest its money in such staffing.
It's clear from talking to Marshall, however, that she made no such deliberate decision. In fact, she is hard-pressed to say how the lower staff ratio comes into play, since classes are not particularly small. In Paula Scott's honors humanities class, for instance, 30 voluble kids crowd around pushed-together tables. "I would have that same question," she says when asked to explain the discrepancy between the staff ratio and class sizes.
To be fair, a small school, by its nature, has a bigger financial challenge. While its overall budget is low under the per-pupil system, it may need a level of staff to operate the building that is not that much lower than that of a big school.
What's more, Marshall has had an overwhelming amount to contend with since coming on board, considering the state of the school she inherited. By all accounts, she is making headway. Teachers speak about improved morale. She's applying for new community grants, including one to create a family center at the school that will seek to reverse the almost negligible parent involvement. And enrollment is slowing climbing.
Unquestionably, though, she and the district still have to get a handle on some central issues, such as the school's finances and resources. Until and unless they do, Rainier Beach will serve as Exhibit A of the South End's educational impoverishment.