This article is one of a series of articles produced by Word in Black through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Word In Black is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.
By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Last weekend, the Rainier Valley Leadership Academy (RVLA), a charter school located in South Seattle, celebrated its first graduating high school class — the class of 2022.
Charter schools are public, tuition free schools that are open to all and staffed by certified teachers. In Washington state, charter schools attract and serve a disproportionately high number of Black, Indigenous, and students of color and students from low-income households. Washington state’s charter school law mandates high standards for performance and accountability in exchange for flexibility to offer innovative programs and individualize instruction to meet the unique needs of students. The 2021 Washington State People of Color Legislative Summit named charter schools as a priority, stating that “Charter schools are a proven solution for POC and immigrants.”
“While every charter school offers a unique school model and serves a unique community, one common thread among the state’s charter public high schools is a deep commitment to ensuring that students graduate with multiple options available to them, so that they can choose the college, post-secondary, or a career pathway that best aligns with their future goals,” said Washington State Charter Schools Association President Patrick D’Amelio.
As it relates to RVLA, it has been a long journey to get to this point for the academy. Listening to the stories of students and staff the ‘R’ in RVLA should stand for resilience. Since the school opened in August of 2017, it has been committed to providing its students with the necessary tools to give them the best chance of success in their educational endeavors, but that has not come without its challenges.
According to Baionne Coleman, CEO of RVLA, this inaugural graduating class has set the example of what it means to overcome struggles and adversities to achieve the goals that you set for yourself. The RVLA class of 2022 has not only had to overcome the barriers presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of the students had to deal with a multitude of other hardships. But through it all, the students collectively represent characteristics that embody resilience.
“Although things are going good, it has been a very, very difficult two years for anyone in education, family, scholars and educators alike,” says Coleman. “When dealing with all of the racial inequities in education and then having to deal with COVID, our staff and scholars have endured quite a bit.”
“Our scholars not only have the streets and its influences [to deal with], but deaths in the family, including multiple deaths in some cases due to COVID and street violence, so our students have had to overcome all types of adversities to get to this point,” added Coleman.
According to Coleman, she is astounded by the efforts of her staff and especially the scholars as they supported one another during these times in crisis. Coleman was extremely taken aback by how families endured tragedy after tragedy and continued to rally around the students and the school.
“Nationally, we need to do more to recognize the children who have graduated throughout this pandemic,” says Coleman. “And I am talking not only about our seniors, but our eighth graders and even our college graduates, specifically, our global majority population, our Black, Indigenous and Brown youth.”
“We have families within our school who have had multiple family members murdered during this pandemic,” continued Coleman. “We have had family members lose their jobs throughout this time, we’ve had youth who’ve had to go back to work to help support their families while continuing their studies, families have lost multiple family member, even within the same household, lost multiple family members to COVID and they are graduating. They have continued to persevere and get through this.”
Bryan Aguila, a member of the RVLA Class of 2022, attests to how hard it was to avoid distractions and making excuses that could have derailed his academic pursuits. Aguilar, who wants to become a teacher, says that he was inspired by his experience at RVLA and will continue his education at North Seattle College to pursue a degree in bilingual studies and art.
“I am very happy about accomplishing my goal to graduate,” says Aguila. “During the pandemic it was very difficult, going from in-person to virtual, missing my friends, but we made it through, we put in the work and we made it and I am pretty happy and excited and ready to go to college.”
As a proud graduate of RVLA, Aguila hopes to inspire others to pursue their own personal dreams.
“To all of my friends and future graduates don’t give up,” says Aguila. “Never give up! Sometimes life can be difficult, but never give up on your dreams.”
Coleman says that Aguila’s story is not uncommon, but one that needs to be shared with others so they too can visualize and achieve success even under difficult circumstances.
“A lot of people talk about resiliency, our global majority children specifically they don’t have resiliency, resiliency is not a thing, it is a way of life for them,” says Coleman.
“The fact that our babies were able to walk across the stage they need to be honored in this space,” she continued. “We need to continue to cheer our children on. The fact that we got children that are to be celebrated and to graduate onto their next steps, the next phase of their lives, that’s not a small feat.”
In addition to RVLA, charter school Summit Sierra in Seattle is graduating its first class. Four other charter schools in the state held graduation ceremonies last week as well. Summit Atlas in West Seattle and Lumen High School are celebrating their second senior class and PRIDE Schools Innovation High School in Spokane andSummit Olympus in Tacoma are graduating their fourth cohort of seniors.