A Focus on Equity and Rigor in Seattle-Area Schools

When Renton High School, just south of Seattle, began making International Baccalaureate (I.B.) courses the default curriculum for juniors and seniors two years ago, some in the community weren’t sure that was a good idea.

“We had to do a lot of training and had to change mindsets in some cases,” said Damien Pattenaude, Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Teaching for Renton School District and former principal of Renton High School.

The vast majority of the high school’s students come from low-income families of color, and most of them had not previously had access to the kind of rigorous, college-preparatory courses the I.B. program offers. But Pattenaude and the Renton team were determined to change that.

Pattenaude is himself a graduate of Renton High, graduating in 1995. “When I went to school here there were clear tracks. My friends on the basketball team with me had a far different experience than I did. They weren’t on a college track, and they didn’t go to college,” he said. “Today, all of Renton’s students have access to the I.B. program, and it’s up to us to help support them. The bar is higher for our students across the board.”

Renton School District is one of seven districts serving low-income communities in the Seattle area that formed a consortium to compete for and win a $40 million U.S. Department of Education Race to the Top–District (RTT–D) grant in 2012. Focused on serving students with the highest needs, the goal of their grant project is to increase access to educational opportunities by creating a strong college-going culture and reducing opportunity gaps.

The grant has helped Renton support and fully implement its I.B. program. “The RTT–D grant allowed us to really ramp up the work we were doing preparing to implement quickly. It really supported our professional development work and helped with family engagement and lowering costs associated with the I.B. program,” Pattenaude said.

Getting more disadvantaged students into college

Soon after they teamed up, the seven districts in the RTT–D consortium analyzed the course-taking patterns of their students and found deep disparities between those who took rigorous courses and those who did not. Low-income students of color were less likely to take those courses than their more affluent, white peers. To foster greater equity in rigorous course-taking, all of the districts adopted policies, programs, and practices that helped move more students, particularly disadvantaged students, into college-prep courses, including Advanced Placement (A.P.) and I.B. classes. These systemic changes are paying off in schools throughout the consortium. The percentage of African American students taking those courses has risen from 46 percent for the class of 2013 to 58 percent for the class of 2014.

Another way the districts are supporting a college-going culture is by addressing barriers that can sometimes prevent students from having access to college entrance exams and preparatory exams.

Some of the RTT–D funds are being used to make the PSAT/SAT tests free and available to all students during the school day. It’s an expectation of every student’s high school experience and removes a barrier to college access, since the tests are used for admissions. “They [students] don’t have to pay the $53 fee. They don’t have to take it on a Saturday, and they don’t have to leave their home school to do it. It is just part of high school. You take it at school with everybody there. All that makes a difference to students,” said Jessica de Barros, the project director for the RTT–D effort, which is known as The Road Map Project and is administered by the Puget Sound Educational Service District.

Many more students are taking college-going tests, particularly students of color. For example, the percentage of black students taking these exams is up 165 percent, and the percentage of Hispanic students is up 237 percent.

“It’s about removing barriers, and creating options for students,” said Pattenaude. “Options are power.”

The early years matter, too

RTT–D consortium districts aren’t focused only on what happens during high school. They also are looking at equity among their youngest learners. Recognizing that opportunity gaps can start even before children enter school, all seven districts have used their RTT–D funding to offer educational and school-readiness programming for children and their families before they begin kindergarten.

These efforts have included hosting play-and-learn groups at district schools, giving families and children the chance to become more comfortable with the schools, and allowing them to get to know one another early. It also allows teachers to dive quickly into the curriculum in kindergarten and helps educators identify students who may need extra support from the moment school starts.

Leveraging other money to improve equity

The participating districts didn’t stop with RTT–D. They leveraged the federal award to secure additional funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to analyze and improve how they are addressing racial equity as they work to meet the goals of the RTT-D grant.

Members of the consortium have used this additional funding to inventory their equity policies, practices and services, and then create plans to improve them. District leaders have also held joint regional meetings and shared strategies for improving equity in their schools. And they have teamed up to provide teachers and principals with professional development focused on racial equity and cultural responsiveness.

“To achieve the goals set out in the Race to the Top grant, to see the results we want, we have to address equity, and we have to address it aggressively,” de Barros said. “Our districts are doing that hard work, and we’re seeing that effort begin to pay off in student success.”