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With Social Justice and Equity in Mind, Renton School District Raises the Bar for Its Students

June 28, 2017

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports the work of the Road Map Project, which aims to dramatically improve educational outcomes in South Seattle and South King County. The project’s latest progress report shows Renton School District making great gains in college preparedness.

School districts must consider a multitude of factors when deciding on district policies. At Renton, we made the bold decision to lead with social justice and equity – because we knew it was the right thing to do. 

Renton School District, just south of Seattle encompasses seven municipalities and enrolls more than 15,000 students who are richly diverse in race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. We are truly committed to the education and well-being of our young people and we understand our shared responsibility to ensure their future success. One way we are taking real action is preparing our students for college.  

The most recent Road Map Project Results Report shows our efforts to support students are paying off. In the 2015-16 school year, 75 percent of our high schoolers took at least one college level course, such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB), before graduation. This is up from 65 percent in the 2014-15 year.

The report also shows more of our students are eligible to apply for any one of Washington’s public four-year colleges by completing the state’s minimum course-taking requirements: 62 percent of the Class of 2016, compared with 47 percent of the Class of 2015.

How did we do it?

Renton School District’s leadership wanted to be deliberate about how we connect our commitment to social justice and equity to the decisions we make daily. We defined what it meant for us to be leaders of social justice. To us, this charge entails addressing individualized and institutionalized practices that led to low expectations, deficit thinking, and inequities for our most historically underserved, underrepresented and undereducated students.

Moving the needle for social justice can mean changing district policies. Washington has about 300 school districts. Before 2016, Renton was one of 23 that did not require four years of English to graduate. This was one of the primary causes for so many of our students graduating without the prerequisite credits for admission to one of our state’s colleges.  The result  was for students who graduated in 2015, over 53 percent did not meet the state’s College Academic Distribution Requirements.  Furthermore, our Black and Hispanic students significantly lagged behind their Asian/Pacific Islander and White peers by as much as 25 percent. The simple change of making English a graduation requirement, in addition to other shifts to our graduation policy, increased college access for more of our students.

Renton also now offers PSAT at no charge to all of our sophomores and juniors. We use the data from this assessment, as well as other quantitative and qualitative measures, to identify and recruit students to take AP and IB classes. Nowhere has this been more successful than at Renton High School, where the IB program was implemented in 2014 with the support of more than a half a million dollars from a Race to the Top grant we and other Road Map Project school districts received.

Renton High School required virtually every student to take IB English and IB history. This has led to more than 85 percent of its students taking an IB class before they graduate. When given the challenge of taking tougher college-preparatory courses, students rose to the occasion. Student performance has increased at Renton High since this requirement was put into place.

Moving forward, we will continue this momentum by leveraging our implementation of a trimester schedule to offer more opportunities for students to identify their passions for, and pathways to, their postsecondary futures.

Leading for social justice is not for the faint of heart. What this work has taught those of us who serve Renton School District students is that words in a strategic plan are not enough. Instead, it takes courage and action, and not only from those working in the district, but also from the broader community, if we are truly going to positively impact the lives of each of our students.  

 
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