Minority scholars program reaps first crop of graduates
Rainier Scholars, a nonprofit Seattle program that began seven years ago to help low-income minority children get into top schools, is now sending all 40 graduates of its inaugural class off to four-year colleges — including such prestigious institutions as Dartmouth and Smith.
Seattle Times education reporter
College-boundWHERE THIS YEAR'S Rainier Scholars are headed:
University of Washington: 12
Seattle University: 4
University of Washington, Bothell campus: 3
Chapman University, Orange, Calif.: 2
Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.: 2
Occidental College, Los Angeles: 2
Eastern Washington University, Cheney: 1
Gonzaga University, Spokane: 1
Seattle Pacific University: 1
Washington State University, Pullman: 1
Eugene Lang College, New York: 1
Howard University, Washington, D.C.: 1
Knox College, Galesburg, Ill.: 1
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles: 1
Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt.: 1
Smith College, Northampton, Mass.: 1
Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Penn.: 1
University of Chicago: 1
University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.: 1
University of Southern California, Los Angeles: 1
Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.: 1
Source: Rainier Scholars program
Anthony Greene vividly remembers his first summer with Rainier Scholars seven years ago, a then-new program that wanted to propel talented minority students into Seattle's top high schools and the nation's best colleges.
The weather was hot. And the program was hard — much more difficult than Greene and the other 75 students had experienced at their regular, public elementary schools.
While their friends went to the beach, rode bikes and relaxed, Rainier Scholars students, then headed into the sixth grade, spent most of the summer studying chemistry, pre-algebra, English and history — then sweating over three-plus hours of homework each night.
Nearly all thought about quitting, and some did.
But program staffers told those who stayed that their hard work would pay off.
Now it has.
Greene graduated this month from a private Seattle high school, University Prep, with a full scholarship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will cover all his costs at Occidental College in California.
The other 39 members of the program's inaugural class earned diplomas from other top public and private schools and include the valedictorian at O'Dea High, a Catholic all-boys school, and six from Lakeside School, Bill Gates' alma mater.
All have been accepted at four-year colleges, including prestigious schools such as Williams College, Smith College and Swarthmore College. And nearly all have received substantial scholarships.
Their successes represent another milestone for Rainier Scholars, which began in 2002 as one man's dream and has grown into a private nonprofit with 17 staff members.
The program offers participants 11 years of support — from the time they leave fifth grade through their college years. It now has 360 students, including 54 graduating fifth-graders who will start this summer.
"They've accomplished everything they've set out to do," said Erica Hamlin, head of school at University Prep, which Greene attended with 21 other Rainier Scholars.
"The kids who come to us are so academically well-prepared ... they just represent a scholarship that is unparalleled."
417 applied this year
Originally called Rainier Prep, the program was founded by Bob Hurlbut, a fourth-generation Seattleite who had worked for a Christian organization called Young Life and as a salesman and sales manager.
Although Hurlbut had no experience in education and largely was unknown in Seattle's Rainier Valley, the home of many of the students he hoped to attract, he wanted to do something to make a difference in the world.
Inspired by a New York program called Prep for Prep, which already was helping minority students of limited means get a first-class education, Hurlbut decided to establish a similar program here.
He went eight months without a paycheck as he shopped the idea to foundations, businesses and community leaders in Rainier Valley, finally finding enough money to get that first class off the ground.
The program asks families only to contribute toward bus-transportation costs, and it is supported by donations from individuals, foundations and corporations.
It selects about 60 low-income, minority students each year based on test scores, but also on work ethic, financial need, strong parental support and the strength of belief that a strong education is the path to success. "Our net is pretty broad," Hurlbut said.
Most students will be the first in their families to go to college.
Of 417 students who applied this year, 54 were selected.
Once accepted, students start with summer classes, taught in the public and private schools where Rainier Scholars rents space. Students continue to take Rainier Scholars classes one evening per week and all-day Saturday throughout their sixth-grade year, then return for a second summer session.
Classes are small, and tough enough to prepare students to succeed in any school they attend.
"Nothing we're doing is rocket science. It's just the best practices of the best, small, personalized schools that exist around the country," said Sarah Smith, one of the program's original staff members and now its associate executive director.
As students enter seventh grade, they're done with the academic portion of the program, but they continue to receive support from the staff — everything from help with applying to private schools to college applications, leadership training and summer internships. At times, the program has even helped families pay the rent or put food on the table — whatever it takes to keep students on the college track.
In all, the program estimates it spends about $27,000 per student over seven years, and expects to spend an additional $8,000 supporting them through college.
Through it all, the program pushes students to challenge themselves academically, even if doing so takes them out of their comfort zones.
Greene, who was among many other African-American students at Leschi Elementary, said he was very unhappy his first several years at University Prep because he was the only African-American male in his class. He worried that classmates wouldn't like him, and he didn't know whom he could rely on.
"I was definitely scared to put myself out here," Greene said. Until he felt comfortable, he tried to focus on why he was there. He and his mother, a payroll clerk, wanted him to have more opportunities than she has had.
"I just would tell myself: This is going to move you forward," he said. "You can't let your insecurities get the best of you."
18 to 20 percent quit
Not all who start the program finish it.
In its inaugural class, Rainier Scholars lost about 20 participants before the second summer ended. It since has honed its admissions criteria, and staff says the attrition rate is now about 18 to 20 percent.
Some criticize the program, saying it assists students who would have made it to college anyway. But program staffers say statistics don't bear that out.
"Where is the data that shows that they've got it made?" Smith said. "Let's look at statistics around their peer groups. What is the proof that they would be fine?"
Carol Coram, principal at Seattle's Arbor Heights Elementary School and a fan of the program, agreed that it's not a given that a student who's doing great in fifth grade will continue succeeding.
"You never know with some," she said. "Maybe they lack just enough self-confidence that they go the other way."
Kainoa King, who graduated from Lakeside this month is, like Greene, headed to Occidental College. King said Rainier Scholars "broke me down and rebuilt me," teaching him that it wasn't enough just to be smart. He also had to work hard.
Jamie Li, another graduating senior, complained so much her first summer that Hurlbut still teases her about it. But she also found the Rainier Scholars classes stimulating, and she wanted to show she could do the work.
Looking back, she said she's glad program staffers and her parents pushed her. She recently graduated from Garfield and is headed to Dartmouth College.
"We all do have it in us," she said. "But it takes someone to challenge us for us to realize we are at that level."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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