Summit Public Schools needs to communicate clearly with Rainier's community
By McKayla Castigador
As a freshman at Rainier, I woke up that morning and came to school like everyone else. I heard that Rainier was closing from my peers, and I didn’t believe it. I immediately thought that they were joking, but that was far from the truth. At that point, my friends and I deeply devoted ourselves to thinking Rainier’s closure was some sick joke. I could not imagine what it would have felt like for my peers who are upperclassmen.
I remember running to my mentor when she walked through the gates of our school and asking, “Is it true that Rainier is closing down?” When I saw her face, the emotion and color seemed to be sucked out as she told me that it was real and that she didn’t know what was going to happen. By then, I was processing the anxiety that I, and my fellow students, were facing. It felt like, as a community, we only had each other and we were trapped in the corner due to decisions made by Summit Public Schools leadership.
15 minutes into class, we had to go to a depressing assembly about the closure of Rainier. SPS leadership, including CEO Diane Tavenner was there to tell us about the closure of Rainier. Superintendent Anson Jackson was the one to break the news to our faces as our CEO looked the other way. He addressed the situation, but he failed to answer questions after. After he spoke, Mr. Jackson, Ms. Tavenner and the other members of SPS leadership who were present immediately left the stage as students were left confused.
As an audience member, the oddest part was witnessing how Ms. Tavenner was peeking at the audience behind a wall (which you can see towards the end of this assembly video) to wait for Mr. Jackson to leave with the rest of SPS leadership. It seemed as if she did not know what the reaction was going to be after they failed to address the concerns of the Rainier community at that assembly. Although, Mr. Jackson did offer for questions to be answered in the office that day.
I felt myself break down, and I saw Rainier break down as a community. Hot messy tears, anger and conflicting feelings were spilling out of most of us. The seniors were worried about the underclassmen, and the underclassmen were worrying about themselves. Meanwhile, teachers and staff were worrying about job security and their students.
The news was crazy, conflicting, and was a huge shock. Everybody in that auditorium was extremely angry, beginning to break down, and visually upset. You could see the hearts of the Rainier staff breaking, and students were beginning to get frustrated by Summit Public School’s leadership. To students, it was a punch in the face that they were never expecting to get. One of the most agonizing things to hear in your teenage years is how you have to leave your friends for change. But, SPS leadership gave us change and made the decision for Rainier students to conform to change.
The biggest question was, “What will happen to our mentors and mentor siblings?” One of the special things about Summit Public Schools is how they have mentor groups. A mentor group is a group of around 20 students with a teacher as your mentor who sticks with you throughout your four years of high school. Your mentor becomes like a second mother or father, and your mentor siblings are your close friends you see everyday.
Everybody in that room was processing the concept of being pulled away from their family. As Ms. Tavenner says in her book “Prepared”, “Each mentor was someone the students trusted, whom they could talk to, who cared about them and their success, who met with them daily, had eaten meals at their homes with their families, and had been their advocate” (p. 12). The thought of teachers losing their mentees after this year is the most agonizing thing to hear. However, it seemed like SPS leadership did not think this change was a heartbreak.
SPS leadership made the decision to close Rainier in a nontransparent manner that caused anger, sadness, and disillusionment in the community. There are still many unanswered questions that are leaving the Rainier community confused and frustrated with SPS leadership. The leadership team is constantly reverting to damage control and pre-made responses to address the concerns of the community. The nontransparent wall that has been created by SPS leadership is being pressed against Rainier to make the community feel conflicted.
SPS leadership needs to be more transparent with their own community. They must provide clarity on the big picture regarding how and why this decision was made by actively answering questions that are still unanswered. Our community is concerned about the students’ transition from school to school. There is information that was not available, such as what exactly was said in closed session when the East Side Union Board discussed the real estate needs of the Summit San Jose schools. You can find the details of Rainier and Tahoma’s charters, but it is very difficult to find that information without having to dig deeply on the internet. The new lease agreement that has to be voted on has not been made public yet.
Students and families have the right to know the details of legal agreements that SPS has entered when those agreements directly affect their lives. The release of this information would increase understanding and transparency in this situation while giving families what they need to reach closure and to make an informed decision on what to do next.
SPS leadership’s communication of this information was unclear and confusing to many.
On Nov. 14, administrators from across SPS had an emergency meeting about the decision to close Rainier. They were informed on Thursday evening; the East Side Union Board agenda and our reporting indicates that Summit Public Schools proposed the deal in closed session that same day.
An email was also sent out about Rainier’s closure with an FAQ attachment that night that sounded as if it were a simple merger and not a Rainier closure. Tahoma math teacher Doug Wills said, “The initial email sounded like Rainier was just moving over here, and then in the attachment there was a FAQ at the bottom where it was a bit more clear to what was happening.” The following day, Nov. 15, the students and teachers were sitting in the Mt. Pleasant auditorium to hear whether or not this information was true.
There was a parent meeting on Nov. 20 that was supposed to address the unanswered questions of Rainier’s community. Teachers, parents, and students gathered there to listen to the SPS leadership’s response to the community. The people that were at the front of the room were Superintendent Jackson, Chief of Staff Kelly Garcia, and Rainier Executive Director Edwin Advarca. Mr. Jackson and Ms. Garcia were the main people talking. Mr. Jackson began reviewing the email that was sent about Rainier’s closure, while parents were wondering why Mr. Jackson and Ms. Garcia wouldn’t take more time to answer the questions of the community.
Rainier’s journalism team previously requested to record the scheduled parent meeting because we understood the closure of Rainier would cause a huge emotional reaction. In addition, we felt that information about the closure wasn’t clear on many levels, and that Rainier’s community was lost. As a journalism team, we wanted to record this to put out stories for our community. However, SPS Communications told us it would not be appropriate to record.
I, and the journalism team, did not record that meeting at all, and I still was not able to get my questions answered. Of course, I was taking notes and keeping tabs on all the things Mr. Jackson and Ms. Garcia were saying. As a student at Rainier, I was angry and frustrated with the way that they did not want to answer my questions.
I remember asking a question about the transportation of students and the transfer of teachers. I will not forget how Ms. Garcia interrupted me during my follow-up question about the teachers. She was saying that they would answer questions for journalists at a later time. Again, as a student, I was lost, infuriated, and crying heavily in my seat. All I wanted, journalism aside, was to pick up information and put together the puzzle of Rainier’s closing.
The leadership team constantly brings up how they want to support students and parents. Through the eyes of a student, I was ignored in the crowd because of their fear of the Rainier journalism team’s questions. Through the eyes of a journalist, I was frustrated by the constant running away they were doing from me. After this, everyone in SPS leadership, except for Mr. Jackson, declined to be interviewed by our team.
On Nov. 19, Rainier’s journalism team asked Ms. Tavenner for an interview, and, on Nov. 21, she replied with, “You mention in your email that the Rainier school community has so many questions and not many answers, and you are hoping to shed some light. While I am a huge fan of student journalism (I was a journalism teacher and advisor for years), I am not sure that the student newspaper is the appropriate venue to address questions the Rainier community has.” It felt very disappointing to hear that student journalism did not seem like the correct outlet when our closure is the biggest concern in our community.
The most frustrating part was how she claimed that SPS leadership was actively communicating with Rainier’s community.
In her email response, Ms. Tavenner stated, “We have been actively engaged in providing comprehensive information in the announcement and companion FAQs and hosting sessions to share and clarify the information. Through that work, we have identified some additional questions, and have been working to provide answers to them. Can you help me understand what questions you feel are not being addressed?” At this moment, the Rainier community is still so lost in the thought of closure. I don’t know where the teachers, my friends, and I are going to end up next. All of us still have questions for her and the rest of SPS leadership.
A follow-up request for comment from Ms. Tavenner was not returned; the SPS Communications team directed all further comment through Mr. Jackson.
SPS leadership has left Rainier feeling like swiss cheese. There are so many missing and moving pieces; however, none of those things seem to have clear answers. In this community, we still don’t know about the availability of transportation; how this decision was made; the details of our real estate needs; and what they will do to help Rainier community members transition.
Most importantly, the students and teachers do not have a guaranteed spot at Tahoma, although the leaders of SPS try and confirm that we do. Tahoma’s charter states, “Tahoma seeks to continue to serve a heterogeneous group of approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12 with a total school enrollment of 405 students.” If all eligible Rainier students chose to transfer, that capacity would not guarantee a place for them, and we have no indication that Summit has officially petitioned their authorizer to change this.
It is so hard for the community to dig for information, but SPS is forcing us to. My fellow staff writers Van Tran and Karla Tran had a hard time finding information regarding Rainier’s closure. They talked to ESUHSD Superintendent Chris Funk about SPS closing Rainier. He wanted to make it very clear that the CEO of Summit and the CEO of KIPP were the ones proposing the idea. He also said, “So this concept of Summit Rainier closing, or they have been talking about closing for a year, never came up… I just recently heard about that in the last two weeks.” In addition to this, he said, “East Side is not closing or did not recommend to close Rainier. We talked about combining the two schools.”
SPS leadership shouldn’t be making it so hard to find information. Rainier’s community needs transparency so they know what to do next. A huge concern is how Tahoma can currently only have 405 students, and they cannot take all the students from Rainier. Mr. Jackson said, “I hope for you all to apply to Tahoma.” Unfortunately, that is not a reality unless Summit formally petitions and receives permission from their authorizer, Santa Clara County, to get the enrollment cap changed for Tahoma.
Our community has a right to know what is going on regarding the legal agreements SPS has made. The missing information has affected all of the lives in the Rainier community. We are given dead-end answers and are left with tons of missing information.
The release of important documents, including what was discussed in closed session regarding the real estate needs of the San Jose schools, official transition planning, and the lease agreements will help this community understand what is going on. If we knew this information, it would provide clarity to the vision regarding the decision SPS decided to make.
It is not OK to have so many moving and missing parts in a big decision that affects people’s lives. Students and staff feel immense pain, and missing information only makes it worse. In my opinion, feeling lost is not something our community needs. We need clarity and accurate facts to help us move on.
SPS leadership made the decision to close Rainier in a nontransparent fashion. This caused a shock to the Rainier family and affected the daily lives of the community. There are holes in the information they’ve given, which leaves us in the dark when we want answers.
Through the countless emotions, assemblies, and dead-end answers given, SPS leadership’s nontransparent ways are not budging. As a student, I need to have clarity about what is going on so I can make a decision on where to go. Rainier’s community deserves the right to know the details of what is going on regarding their closure in order to figure out what their next steps are.
Featured image (at the top of this post): In a school assembly on Nov. 15, SPS Superintendent Anson Jackson delivered the news about Rainier’s closure. PHOTO CREDIT: Judy Ly