When former Rainier Beach High School (RBHS) student Gian Rosario first entered the southeast Seattle school in his junior year, he was floored by the building’s condition. Rosario had transferred from Beacon Hill’s Cleveland High School, which had undergone a $68 million renovation completed in 2007. His new school, on the other hand, had lockers that were scratched and dented from decades of wear and tear. Items would sometimes fall from the second to first floor through a pencil-sized hole in the ceiling. In fact, his sister—a current Rainier Beach student—told him that a water spillage through the hole recently disrupted her first-floor class. “The school is not in the best shape,” recalled Rosario, now a University of Washington freshman. “It looks dilapidated.”
The structural challenges of the building that opened in 1960 were obstructing the students’ education, Rosario noted. One day in 2017, the fire-alarm system backfired, emitting a smell that wafted throughout the building. As a result, students were released from school early that day, he said.
Next week, Seattle voters will have the opportunity to vote on two education levies that will fund daily operations, the improvement of safety and security at each school, and the modernization or replacement of Rainier Beach High School and seven other schools. The renewal of one levy in particular—the $1.4 billion Building Excellence V (BEX V) Capital Levy, also known as Proposition 2—could offer RBH the dire makeover parents and students have been requesting for years.
Not only would Proposition 2 fund the renovation of RBHS, it would also aid in the addition of 1,908 new seats to help balance class sizes across the district. Money from the capital levy would also be used to secure school sites, update the fire-alarm system, make earthquake improvements, and improve classroom technology throughout the school district.
But it’s unknown whether RBHS would have been included in the list of schools to be renovated with levy money had students like Rosario and others not lobbied Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Beginning in February 2017, Rosario and a few friends began attending school board meetings to draw attention to the school’s condition. When their art program was at risk of being cut, students also hosted a fundraiser to retain staff and raise community awareness of the building’s condition. Despite students’ requests for a fully renovated building, RBH was passed over again and again on the Building Excellence capital levy.
But according to Richard Best, SPS director of capital projects and planning, RBHS isn’t the only school that’s needed a facelift. “Seattle Public Schools has 102 school facilities of which the average age exceeds 60 years,” Best wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly. “Prior projects implemented in BEX I, II and III focused on addressing schools in poor physical condition, while BEX IV projects focused on addressing student enrollment needs.” SPS chose the eight buildings slated to be modernized or renovated by following the School Board’s Guiding Principles that were adopted on May 9, 2018. “Criteria included ensuring educational equity, safety, capacity, condition and educational adequacy,” Best said.
Virginia Patu, an RBHS Parent Teacher Student Association board member, has advocated for the school’s renovation for nearly a decade. As the parent of a current RBHS senior and a recent graduate, as well as a grandparent of four current students, Patu has since 2012 encouraged parents to send letters to the school board in support of the school’s renovation. “We still have flooring that probably has asbestos. We’re the only Seattle high school that hasn’t been renovated at all,” Patu said about the building’s state. “It’s just inequitable.”
RBHS has benefited from BEX levies in the past, but not to the caliber that’s anticipated under the BEX V levy. Currently, $194 million is allotted for RBHS’s renovation if the levy passes, according to SPS. The first Building Excellence Capital Levy ushered in the construction of a new performing arts center and a partial renovation of RBHS that was completed in 1998. Then the library was expanded, along with the upgrading of science and culinary arts program facilities through the BEX III levy in 2008. Yet the renovations have not amounted to the kinds of improvements that Patu and Rosario say is needed.
Patu would like to see an upgrade in technology so that students will have access to tools that will help them excel academically. “It’s not a healthy learning environment, and not motivating for the kids. We still have to a have concrete foundation to be able to house our community,” Patu said resolutely. “But first and foremost, we need the children to be proud of what they come from.”
While SPS has not created a design for the school, according to Best, the district has implemented a master plan study to glean the building’s current condition and the estimated cost of construction. “Design activities will commence after the successful passage of the BEX V capital levy,” he added.
The efforts made by the new school board and Superintendent Denise Juneau make Patu hopeful that the school will actually become an encouraging learning environment.
In Rosario’s eyes, the inclusion of RBHS in the levy is only the beginning. “Rainier Beach High School doesn’t want a bare-minimum reconstruction of our school. We want state-of-the-art, and that means including the newest ideas and the most up-to-date features to our new school,” Rosario concluded.
Update: Article has been amended to include information from Seattle Public Schools.