Rainier Valley, on the southeast side of Seattle, has the most diverse zip code in America: It is home to 70 nationalities speaking over 20 languages. Gangs such as 74 Hoover Crips and Central District Bloods roam the streets. Although Rainier Valley only includes 8 percent of the Seattle population, 21 percent of the city's 2008 homicides happened there. Students who strive to excel academically encounter jeering, not cheering. Without support, most of these students will fail.
But some won't if Bob Hurlbut, a former Young Life staffer, has his way. Hurlbut founded Rainier Scholars in 2002. Since then the support program has been offering "early intervention, rigorous curriculum, high academic standards, [and] long-term comprehensive support" to low-income, minority students beginning in the summer before sixth grade and concluding with college graduation.
Hurlbut's office sits in a neighborhood where broken glass lines the street and protective metal bars cover the windows of Viet-Wah Super Foods. His office walls display student pictures, artwork, and banners from colleges like Dartmouth and Columbia that Rainier Scholars attend. On a bookshelf next to grape juice boxes is a framed quotation: "Everyone deserves opportunity, no one deserves success."
Rainier Scholars accepts 60 students, based on test scores and parental commitment, out of a pool of 1,000 fifth-graders. Scholars begin the program by studying 10 hours a day during a six-week summer academic boot camp. They continue all-day Saturday programs throughout the regular school year. During the first 14-month phase of the program, scholars attend the equivalent of 120 additional days of school, and complete more than 500 additional hours of homework. They study literature, writing, history, math, science, and personal ethics.
The intensity can be a shock to the scholars. Dana Marrero, a scholar accepted to Seattle's elite Lakeside private high school, says she was so excited when she received her acceptance into the Rainier Scholars program that she ran around the house screaming. On the first day of the program, reality hit: "I was looking at my shoes. I knew no one, I didn't know what was going to happen, I was blank." Marrero says she would go to Rainier Scholars, then come home so frustrated she would "take it out on whoever I saw: my cat, my mom, the fridge, anything. I would cry, have a little snack, do homework, cry again, do homework and cry at the same time." Everywhere she turned another big stack of homework waited to be completed.
Dina Anur, a senior in high school, has been a scholar for six years. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, Anur says that at some point "every kid wants to quit" the program. Nineteen students from her class of Rainier Scholars did quit. Anur often received "Unprepareds," meaning that she had not finished her homework from the night before. Angry and frustrated, she would storm home. Rather than giving sympathy, her mother would tell her, "That's what you get, you deserve it. OK, you need to do your work and focus."
One of Anur's hardest classes was literature, taught by Drego Little. He had 11- and 12-year-old scholars read 13 books, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The House on Mango Street, and The Odyssey. He expected Anur and her classmates to read critically and to be able to offer text-based evidence for their comments during class discussions.
Anur says Little required his students to memorize a piece of literature and perform it in front of the class. To help them develop confidence, Little took Anur's class outside and sent the scholars one at a time across the street to speak their pieces over the noise of roaring buses. Once, after her class had valiantly orated the pieces, arousing the attention of neighbors, Little took the whole class out for hot chocolate and donuts at Starbucks.
Today, Anur is a mentor to 10 younger girls. Two of her students are on probation, one for low academics and the other for an unruly temper. During community meetings Hurlbut gives mentors object lessons to teach to the younger students: "You have a choice, you can have this $1,000 Monopoly bill or you can have a real dollar bill, which do you want?" Through hard work students can achieve real success rather than counterfeit security.
By high school, scholars get accepted into some of the best prep schools in the city. Rainier Scholars make up about 5 percent of Lakeside, arguably the best private school in the Seattle area, with yearly tuition costs over $26,000. Exclusive schools such as Lakeside yearn for a more diverse student body and offer well-qualified low-income students nearly free tuition.
Generally, scholars find themselves going from low-income, ethnic middle schools to affluent white high schools. Learning to navigate among Ralph Lauren sweaters is often more difficult than taking Advanced Placement (AP) calculus. "Private schools were not built for our kids. We are sending our kids off to a hostile environment," says Hurlbut.
Anur says making the transition to Ballard High, with a student body of 1,600 mostly upper-middle-class white kids, was like stepping into another culture. Slang from her inner-city middle school-"tight," "wicked," and "rad"-was foreign to her classmates at Ballard. Anur says that because she is Muslim, kids were often "clueless and afraid to talk" to her. After one discussion of the Middle East during a sophomore history course, Anur's classmates were so careful not to offend her that she felt ostracized. Anur said that because she is black, one of her Ballard counselors told her not to bother taking AP classes because she wouldn't be able to pass them.
The statistics are not good for minority students. William Bowen, in his book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, analyzed data collected from 19 elite schools and found that only 6 percent of the students at these institutions are first-generation college students. Education expert Anthony Carnevale and economist Stephen Rose found that 74 percent of students at 146 top colleges came from the wealthiest quarter of the population. Only 6 percent came from the poorest quarter.
Through an intensive, supportive program, Rainier Scholars have a 100 percent college acceptance rate, with scholars attending 51 colleges, including Stanford and Yale. "We don't want scholars wondering about going to college-we want them thinking about which college they will choose," said Hurlbut.
This fall, Anur will attend Pacific Lutheran University, her top choice. Anur's victory is also a victory for the parents and teachers who saw potential and gave her a chance to rise above the statistics.
-Kira Clark is a Virginia journalist