Rogelio (Roger) Rigor is a Filipino American public school teacher in his 60s. He has been teaching at the Ida B. Wells High School in Seattle for over 18 years. The school’s 2015 graduating class was one of the largest ever—its Facebook page reads: “22 brilliant, conscious, ambitious minds … committed to critical consciousness, higher education and changing their communities.” Deeply beloved by his students and their families, Roger Rigor, the post continues, is “one of the best teachers this world has created.”
But now despite almost two decades of dedicated educating and nurturing, Rigor is being suddenly pushed out.
“The principal decided on all this,” said Rigor, referring to Middle College principal Cindy Nash and his displacement as the result of “a lot of unilateral decision making.” A replacement has already been hired. Neither of the Wells School’s current two current teachers were involved in the recruitment and interview process, according to Rigor. “We were not informed,” Rigor said. “I didn’t know [she’d] just move forward and interview and replace me without any conversation.”
The rationale given for Rigor’s displacement is built upon a technicality. Technically he is not endorsed to administer a specific standardized biology test required for sophomores and freshmen and therefore needs to be replaced by someone who can. Wayne Au, Associate Professor in Educational Studies at University of Washington Bothell and education reform activist, said there was a simple solution to that. “All Cindy Nash would’ve had to do was change Roger’s job description but she decided not to,” Au said. Instead she’s “asking [Rigor] to become highly qualified in a subject he doesn’t teach,” Au explained.
The reality though, both Rigor and Au admit, is that this is about a lot more than a technicality.
The Ida B. Wells School is part of Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Middle College High School, an alternative program that gives at-risk youth a second chance with personalized attention in a small classroom setting and strives to get more college-underrepresented kids, like first generation students and students of color, into higher ed. SPS Middle College was, until recently, comprised of four programs at different campuses: Middle College High Point, Middle College Northgate, Middle College Seattle University, and Middle College University of Washington (aka Ida B. Wells School). The high schools are purposely located on or near college campuses to foster collaborative partnerships and build college-prep pathways.
Wells School students are practically treated as college students themselves: taught rigorous material, challenged to work harder, to think more deeply and critically. “Our school has been very successful with students who have been struggling,” Rigor said. “We have students who have clearly said that they have fallen in love with schooling, education, and knowledge.”
Indeed, where graduation may have been in question for these at-risk youth in traditional high school, almost all Middle College students graduate and around 80 percent go to college.
Wells School junior Cody Choi wrote in her editorial “Education as the Practice of Freedom”:
“When students don’t fit the typical ‘staus quo’ of public high school, they are left without much choice on where to go, and many decide to drop out. I felt hopeless with my situation, and my poor grades left me anxious about the future. All of this changed however, once I found Ida B. Wells School … my entire perspective of education changed instantly.
So why would the district press disruptive changes on a model that appears to work so well? Rigor thinks it has to do with the students served and that the program’s approach differs from standardized paradigms. “We teach critical analysis; being citizens rather than focusing on growth and economics,” he said. “I don’t think people like that. I don’t think the status quo likes that. And I think that’s why this is happening.”
Many agree. Students, families and supporters angrily see the displacement of Rigor as just part of a deliberate “slow death” of all Middle College sites imposed by SPS administration over the last three years. This has included the displacement of Alonza Ybarra at Middle College High Point and then very recently the announcement that Middle College High Point would be closed altogether.
“Students are frustrated,” said Rigor, “They are angry. They are upset.” On their website SPS states the High Point campus was only temporarily leased while the district assessed transition to other sites, and that the time is up. High Point students will be absorbed either into other existing Middle College campuses or into their neighborhood traditional high schools.
That may be a superficial explanation however. Au, also one of the original founding faculty of Middle College High Point and now an educational policy researcher, said the bigger picture is that “our education policies at the federal and state level have become regimented and hyper-disciplinary.” Such policies are a function of education privatization over at least the last decade which also employs tactics like increasing use of high-stakes tests owned by private companies, standardizing curricula, and squirreling away resources into charter schools.
Alternative schools are not charter schools and they do not teach to standardized thinking or constructs. As a result, say advocates, privatization has made it increasingly difficult for alternative programs to do what they do. “Middle College have been sites of social justice curriculum and teaching,” Au said. “That approach doesn’t fit into the mold of corporate education reform.” Subsequently he said we see bureaucratic pushback like neglect, flexibility reduction, funding cuts, and staff changes.
Over his many years of teaching, Rigor said he has witnessed this disturbing move to privatize public schooling. “There is this whole thrust to standardize everything,” Rigor said. “Curricula being put in public schools are owned by private companies.”
Rigor said buying into the idea of “magic bullet” curricula is dangerous. “There’s no magic key to education,” he warned. “We’re off to a system of education that will not be good for the future.” If the Middle College model is destroyed, Rigor is concerned there won’t be a place for struggling students to meet their full potential and such students will instead be met with remedial courses that will keep them where they are.
Au concurred, adding there are even larger implications for society as a whole: “Every time we move public high school programs like this we’re essentially taking away another option for a kid to graduate who might not have graduated otherwise. What that means is that we are also increasing the likelihood for these young people to get in trouble. … We know that dropping out increases the rates of incarceration for instance. So every time we take away a program like this we contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Both Rigor and Au said people in the community need to be more vigilant about valuing programs like Middle College and speaking out.
Rigor highlighted the urgency of educating the public: “We have to make sure the community knows what’s going on; spread the word. This is not getting the coverage necessary.”
Rigor directed concerned residents to join the public Facebook group, Save Middle College High Point and Ida B. Wells, attend school board meetings, sign the petition at Change.org, and follow the student-initiated hashtag #WeAreNotThrowAways.
“There are a lot of students who need these programs,” Au said. “The public should be pushing the legislature around funding and class sizes; holding the legislature accountable for what voters have voted for.”
Editor’s note (7/2/15 at 6:32 a.m.): An edit was made to correctly refer to Cody Choi as “she” rather than “he.”