By Matt Halvorson
I got there bright and early, just before the beginning of the school day at Rainier Prep Middle School. School leader Maggie O’Sullivan invited me to sit in on the morning staff meeting, and as soon as it ended, we were off.
I wasn’t actually sure where we were headed, but I knew we only had a few minutes until a couple hundred middle schoolers would be barreling down the hallways. So, with the clock ticking, I asked about the origin story — back at the beginning, before Rainier Prep was even an idea. How did Rainier Prep come to be?
“When the charter law passed,” O’Sullivan said, “I, like other folks, thought, this is a real opportunity for innovation. There are other states that have used their charter law to create higher-quality schools for low-income students and students of color. Why couldn’t we do it here in Washington? I’ve seen it happen. I’ve had opportunities to visit schools that are defying the odds. I feel like Washington has the resources, and we should be creating these schools that are performing differently.”
So, she set out with a team to create one of those meaningfully different schools. It started with finding the answers to a whole slew of questions.
“Early in our work, we — just a group of educators and concerned folks — asked, ‘How do we put together a school? Where might we locate? What would we be about?’ We were originally thinking maybe southeast [Seattle], but over time and research we decided that this area in South County really made the most sense in terms of outcomes and needs and where the population is moving.”
We wound down the stairs and kept moving down the hall.
“So, we began then doing work within the community work, just asking folks informally, ‘If we were to build a school, would you want a school?’ ‘If you would want a school, what level would it be?’”
These are such important questions, but as fundamental as they seem, that type of genuine community engagement is rare. In the case of Rainier Prep, O’Sullivan and her fellow planners heard a resounding “Yes!” to the question of whether the community wanted a new school. Exactly what type of school they wanted, however, was a surprise.
“I taught high school, and then I was a principal at an elementary school. So that’s my expertise,” O’Sullivan said. “When we went out into the community, what did they want? A middle school.”
After more deliberation, they decided to open a four-year middle school serving fifth through eighth grades. After gradually ramping up, 2017-18 is the school’s first year serving all four grade levels, and today we had made our way downstairs to the expectant energy of the calm before a storm.
“Are we ready? We got music?” O’Sullivan asked like a coach getting her players ready before sending them onto the court. “Everyone, are you ready!?”
Then she turned to me.
“We’re going to greet, which means we’re going to high-five or handshake—”
But the rest of her instructions were cut short by the rush of the first group of students through the school doors. O’Sullivan didn’t miss a beat, of course, and she was greeting the kids by name and slapping hands almost before I knew what was happening.
“Welcome to school! Have an awesome day!”
“You are missing something! There you go.”
“Come on in, you too! Good morning, welcome.”
She has to be ready to move fast, because she knows she’s already playing catch-up from the first minute of the day. For the kids, their school day was well underway long before the bus actually pulled into the parking lot. Their first greeting is from the bus driver each morning, after all, so at Rainier Prep, it’s far from incidental. O’Sullivan describes it as one of the “opening and closing rituals we do every day, every class period, every school year” that add up to create the culture of the school.
“Excellent eye contact! I appreciate that!”
“Good to see you! So glad you’re back today, ready to make some good choices. Have a wonderful day!”
“So, you can see it’s a very diverse school in every sense. Over 90 percent of our students identify as students of color,” O’Sullivan said, and more than 60 percent spoke another language at home as of last spring. “I give [assistant principal] Hong-Nhi Do all the credit for the community-based recruiting in our first year, which was really important because we wanted to make sure that information got through non-traditional sources — good morning! Good morning!”
“Welcome, good morning!
“Yeah, why don’t you just put it in your backpack. Good idea.”
“You’ve got a special project? Sweet!”
“Great to see you at school!”
“It’s a great mix of students,” she said, turning back to me, “and it really represents the community, which is what we wanted.”
“Welcome to school! On that path to college, keep those heads up!”
“I know, isn’t it an awesome hat!? Have a great day!”
“Welcome! Great to see you.”
“All right, boys! Welcome!”
“Good morning and welcome!”
“Welcome to school! Great to see you!”
“A little too fast! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Great to see that urgency though.”
“Welcome, welcome. Great to see you!”
“Here we go! Be that scholar you are.”
And just like that, it was over. The school day was underway. The kids had been greeted. Every one of them. We started to turn from the doors to head upstairs.
Then a straggler snuck in through the back door. I thought back to the many times I was late for middle school years ago, and the disapproving looks and tardy slips I’d have to carry. It would color the rest of the day, feeling heat for having slunk in after the bell.
“You made it!” O’Sullivan said with a smile. “Nice work!”
Just one of many ways, from the first moment of every day of every school year, that Rainier Prep creates a meaningfully different experiences for its students.