Rainier Prep: Lofty goals for minority students
Seattle Times staff reporter
The shades are down in Sung-Joon Pai's math class to ease the summer heat.
Pai walks desk to desk, fanning students while they work on fractions. One boy, who didn't do his homework, asks anxiously if his parents will get a call that night.
"They don't do that in regular school," he complains.
But Rainier Prep isn't regular school, his classmates remind him.
Regular school doesn't require three to four hours of homework, even on Friday. Regular school doesn't keep such close contact with home. Regular school doesn't have gifted classes full of students of color.
Rainier Prep is a new, privately funded after-school and summer program held at Aki Kurose Middle School that's designed to take minority students well beyond what regular school usually offers.
"Tell parents if you want your child to be disciplined and killed because they are so tired, bring them to this program," jokes 11-year-old Cheryl Delostrinos. Then she brags: "We're doing chemistry already."
After three years of groundwork, Bob Hurlbut, a dreamer tempered by 12 years in sales, opened Rainier Prep this summer with a class of 76 of Seattle's brightest minority fifth-graders.
It's based on a New York City program called Prep for Prep, which for the past 25 years has nurtured high-achieving minority students in that city from middle school through college.
Eighty-six percent of Prep for Prep's graduates earn a college degree.
Rainier Prep hopes to place its students into highly capable programs in public schools.
Their strategies, however, are the same: Use test scores and interviews to find bright, motivated fifth-graders, start working with them before adolescence sets in, and give them 11 years of academic and social support.
Rainier Prep, which may soon change its name so it doesn't sound so much like a school, starts with 14 months of rigorous classes that cover two summers and after-school sessions during sixth grade. From seventh grade through college, it plans to provide an academic counselor to help students enroll in advanced programs, apply to college and ensure they get the support they need.
Parents are asked only to pay for bus transportation, if they can.
The goal is to help more minority students reach the top rungs of the academic ladder and nurture them as leaders.
In Seattle schools, minorities make up 60 percent of enrollment, but 36 percent of highly capable classes in elementary schools, and just 30 percent in middle schools.
"For a long time, the Seattle School District has felt pressure to create programs that will keep upper-middle-class white children in public schools," says Sarah Smith, the program's academic director.
"I would love nothing more (than) for Rainier Prep to inspire the same sense of urgency for high-quality, college-prep programs for children of color, especially from the Rainier Valley."
Hurlbut and the program's board of directors so far have raised $750,000, enough to operate for about 1-½ years.
The program "spoke to me as a father and as a businessman," said Gary Giglio, board chairman and director of the Seattle office of Goldman Sachs, an investment-banking firm. "There are not enough people of color in the leadership pools from which our major institutions draw."
Students were chosen from 1,100 who passed the reading part of the fourth-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). More than 200 applied.
The staff selected 76 based on interviews and scores on another test — the one Seattle uses to screen students for its highly capable programs. (Two students have dropped out.)
Before classes started, parents wondered whether Rainier Prep would offer enough of a challenge. Now some worry it will be too hard.
Students report staying up until midnight, 1 a.m., even later to complete assignments.
They are excited about where the program may take them, and eagerly participate in class.
Susie Wu can barely finish a question in her science class before most of the hands in the room shoot up, wanting a chance to figure out the number of electrons in xenon or take a guess at the symbol for sugar.
But they're also nervous about the pace and rigor.
"It makes you feel like you're in college," said Delostrinos, who reports she read the previous night's chemistry passage five times before she understood it.
Rainier Prep "makes me smarter, and I like that," said another girl who was close to tears after getting several problems wrong on a quiz. "I didn't know I could learn this stuff."
Parent Lydia Cortedano says her hands sweat when she sees the assignments her son brings home.
"Sometimes I tell him, I'm more nervous than he is."
But she's happy he's enrolled.
"Now he thinks about college. He really wants to go to college," she said. "Before, he thought a lot about baseball."
The rules are strict: If students don't do their homework two days in a row, parents get a call. If they continue to arrive unprepared, they can be asked to leave.
"This is not charity," says Hurlbut. "This is very much opportunity."
In the third week, 25 students received an "academic alert," which means they have a D or F in one or more classes.
Teachers have made adjustments in the amount and timing of homework. But they haven't lowered standards. Instead, they lavish students with support.
Classes have 15 students. All students spend a few minutes each day with an adviser. They can call their adviser or teachers at night. They meet twice a week in groups where a psychologist leads discussions, kept confidential, about how they're coping.
Hurlbut said he first heard about Prep for Prep in "A Hope in the Unseen," a book by Ron Suskind about a black student's journey from the inner city to the Ivy League.
Hurlbut was looking for a way to make a difference in the world, which he knows sounds hokey, but Prep for Prep was the most successful program he'd ever seen.
He had to sell himself as well as the idea. He's worked at Young Life, a Christian organization, and spent 12 years as salesman and sales manager in the graphics industry. But he was unknown to the families and funders that Rainier Prep would touch.
It took him 14 months to persuade the Apex Foundation, the family foundation of Bruce and Jolene McCaw, to give him a grant.
Smith, the academic director, said Hurlbut kept after her, too.
"He won't go away until you say you're on board."
Smith, who helped create Nathan Hale High School's popular ninth- and 10th-grade academies, has assembled an impressive staff that includes a former Washington state teacher of the year.
Hurlbut is executive director, chief cheerleader, errand runner and lunchroom cleaner.
The staff balks at the suggestion that they're helping students who would make it to college anyway. A handful would, they say, but most wouldn't.
In English class, teacher Karen Mikolasy takes out "A House on Mango Street" and reads the chapter about four skinny trees that grow even though surrounded by concrete.
The students understand the symbolism. They are like those trees, with obstacles that can hold them back. Even in the supportive atmosphere at Rainier Prep, they get frustrated, and don't always understand.
And when they don't, Mikolasy asks, what should they do?
"Ask questions," she answers, throwing her hands in the air. "That's what we're here for."
Linda Shaw can be reached at 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.