Every summer, five dozen mostly low-income students of color from Seattle Public Schools begin an intensive academic program designed to get them ready for college. In Rainier Scholars, middle-schoolers commit to eight-hour school days in the summer and then after-school and weekend classes during the school year. Most of these students would be the first in their families to graduate from college.
On one of the first days of summer, teacher Drego Little leads a small class of incoming seventh-graders. They’re sitting in a U-shape, facing each other, seminar-style.
"What is love? How do you know? You guys are kinda young, but you have some idea, right?" Little asks. One boy hazards a guess. "Like, when you see somebody – I think this is how it goes – like, in the movies, when you see somebody, and they have the hearts around, and they’re like 'ohhhhh!'"
Little starts the lesson on "Romeo and Juliet" by asking students to write on index cards who they’ve been told never to marry. He tries to reassure them that he won’t take their answers personally. “I don’t think you believe this! This is the impression you have been given, OK? And I know and I’ll say it right now, I know before I have you write this answer, many of you have been told not to marry black people. Right? And that doesn’t bother me, because I know better than anybody that black people are awesome!”
The kids hand the cards in with nervous giggles.
Little reads the cards back to the class. "'Don’t marry blacks.' Black people," says Little. "When you say 'blacks' I think of little things, like, running around, OK?"
Next card? "'My whole family gave an impression that I should never marry a black person.'"
"'Don’t marry Chinese or Mexican people.' It’s weird those two go together!"
"'I got the impression to not marry a white person.'"
"So Romeo and Juliet is not about 'back then.'" says Little. "You know, back when people told you who to marry! Mm, isn’t that kind of today? Right?"
Shakespeare isn’t usually taught until high school, but the goal of Rainier Scholars is to help these middle-schoolers qualify for scholarships to local private schools, or gifted classes in public school. And later, to help them get into college.
Eleven-year-old Melat Ermyas is working on her private school applications. She’s hoping to get into University Prep. "Regular school, it’s not really that much of a challenge. And they say that private school is just like Rainier Scholars. And right now I’m doing pretty well, I guess, in Rainier Scholars, so I guess I can handle private school," Ermyas says.
Over her first year in Rainier Scholars, Ermyas and her 59 peers will get 300 hours of homework in addition to their regular middle school homework.
Rainier Scholars selects its students based on their reading level, parental involvement and a series of interviews. Numerous studies have found that when the brightest, most motivated students are drawn away from their neighborhood public schools, it can come at a cost for the kids who stay.
Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Senior Economist Mary Burke co-authored a study that found that average-achieving public school students tended to do better if they had high-achieving peers in the classroom. "And so those middling students are going to pay a price, presumably, by losing those high-quality peers," Burke says.
But when those high-achievers leave, Burke says, something else happens: The lowest-achieving kids in the class do better. So do the high-achieving kids who end up in programs like Rainier Scholars. Students like Alan Lin. After taking gifted classes at Mercer Middle School and AP classes at Garfield High School, he’s now in his second year at the University of Washington.
"I come from a first-generation family, so my parents don’t really speak English and they aren’t really used to, I guess, American culture and stuff," Lin says. "So having this kind of support group behind me, whenever we need help with anything, we can just go to them and ask." Lin says the staff at Rainier Scholars even helped him file an insurance claim after a car accident. They’ll follow him all the way through college, making sure nothing stands in the way of graduation — from family crises to financial problems.
In its first decade, Rainier Scholars has held on to about three-quarters of its students through high school graduation. Executive Director Sarah Smith says the kids that stick with the program are all but guaranteed college educations. And she says Rainier Scholars is not magic. "It is day-in, day-out hard work and perseverance on the part of everybody involved," Smith says. "It is the idea we espouse to our students that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard."
Rainier Scholars will celebrate a milestone next spring. That’s when its first ever group of students will graduate from colleges across the country.