If you listen to the school reform debate these days, you would be forgiven for thinking that public schools across the board are failing students and that schools that are struggling can only improve if they fire all of their staff, become a charter school or let the state take them over. It’s just not so.

This is clear in a project called the Schools of Opportunity, which was launched a few years ago by educators who wanted to highlight public high schools that actively seek to close opportunity gaps through 11 research-proven practices and not standardized test scores (which are more a measure of socioeconomic status than anything else).

The project assesses how well schools provide health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, high-quality teacher mentoring programs, outreach to the community, effective student and faculty support systems, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they believe their school should be recognized.

The project started in 2014 as a pilot program in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-2016, with gold and silver winners coming from states including Maryland, Georgia, California and Oregon. It is the brainchild of Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law; and Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal in New York who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.

Twenty schools were named as honorees for the 2015-16 school year — eight gold winners and 12 silver — and you can see the list here. This is the first of a series of posts I will publish that highlight why each of the schools was chosen to be honored. It is important to note that each school found success in ways that met the needs of their own communities.

Here is a post about a 2016 Gold medal School of Opportunity in Seattle:

By Kevin Welner and Carol Burris

High School: Rainier Beach High School
City and State: Seattle
Principal: Keith Smith
Superintendent: Dr. Larry Nyland
Enrollment: 700
Economically disadvantaged students: 76.3 percent

The community surrounding Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School is strong and diverse. The student body of the high school reflects that diversity — 40 percent of its students come from immigrant or refugee backgrounds. Roughly 95 percent are students of color, and 75 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunch.

The story of Rainier is a remarkable story of rebirth. In 2010, the school was on the brink of closure, with only 320 students remaining in a building built for 1,200. The low enrollment was forcing the school to cut all but the most essential classes.

But parents, concerned community members, teachers and the school district came together to develop a plan to resuscitate the school. They committed themselves to a school with high expectations along with strong supports and a deeply engaging curriculum. After much discussion, research, and exploration, they settled on a bold plan — implementing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB) at Rainier Beach High.

Although at some high schools the IB is an exclusive program, the educators at Rainier Beach went the opposite direction. The community demanded that this program serve all students, with particular attention given to the neighborhood’s most underserved and marginalized students.

Today, these challenging courses are the default for most 11th and 12th grade students. Nearly all Rainier Beach students take at least one IB class, and most students take many more. In fact, the vast majority of 11th and 12th grade special needs students are enrolled in IB Language and Literature classes, with the help of a special education co-teacher in those classrooms. Special education teachers, along with special education instructional assistants, provide support to all students in a given classroom, regardless of IEP or 504 status. (IEPs are individual education programs created for each student in special education. Section 504 is part of a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires any program or activity receiving federal funding to ensure that no one with a disability is excluded from participation or denied benefits.)

Since the implementation of IB and other academic supports, the student population has more than doubled, and the school has shown significant improvement by a number of other measures.

Improvements such as these require the support and understanding of the community, so Rainier Beach has put together a unique community outreach program in partnership with some of the neighborhood’s many community-based organizations.

This program relies on a community outreach coordinator — a new position created as part of the reform effort — who works with parents where they are, outside of the school building. In libraries, churches, mosques, community centers, and neighborhood businesses, the school holds monthly “Community Cafes” where teachers deliver sample lessons and help parents understand how to help their students be successful with the challenging IB curriculum.

For its remarkable school turnaround based on valuing the community it serves, Rainier Beach High truly deserves to be called a School of Opportunity.