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Originally published Wednesday, April 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Being open to equity and quality

"On the fringes of most school environments gathers a shadow population of students whose motivation and achievement are stymied. These are the marginal...

"On the fringes of most school environments gathers a shadow population of students whose motivation and achievement are stymied. These are the marginal students who are not being well-served by our public schools. Precious little attention is given either to the needs of these young people or to their assets. They are viewed as deviants from the 'regular' students, outsiders who are not productive members of the learning community. This persistent problem of increasing numbers of students who are not succeeding must be attacked because youth who fail on the margins are as deserving as those who thrive in the mainstream."

That is the opening salvo of Donna Ford's "Reversing Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students," an eagle-eyed critique of public schools' failure to recognize and nurture minority high achievers.

This is a book Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas' ought to grab, squirrel himself away someplace quiet and read. Manhas is a person of color who talks eloquently and persuasively about the ways in which public-school inequities track along racial and class lines. A determination to erase these inequities was the driver behind his proposal to close some schools and drastically retool others.

Restructuring a district is like guerrilla warfare. Even if Manhas wins the war, victory will look nothing like the current proposal on the table. It is important to see where our schools chief is coming from, at least in order to know where the battle lines are drawn.

Manhas is not satisfied with a district where academic achievement falls along racial lines. He is right not to be. He is not happy with a gifted program that is homogenous in a school district that is not. That puts him on the side of right again.

That's why he needs to read Ford's book. At least then he would know which way to aim his weapon. Ford says giftedness is multidimensional. It is not the property of one class or racial group. It looks that way on paper because educators wrongly narrow the spectrum to fit only a few kids.

Ford conceives of an educational utopia where children with advanced abilities, whether artistic, academic or in leadership, are recognized and nurtured. These students tend to have high self-esteem and positive relationships with their families, teachers and peers. Teachers have high expectations of these students and positive attitudes about them. There is consistent and substantive collaboration between the home and school.

Outside of a few schools, these things aren't happening in our schools. That must change.

But not in the way Manhas is proposing. Equity is not plundering one school and handing its spoils to other schools. It is, however, creating quality and equity from whole cloth for every school.

Six years ago, I spent a week at Rainier Beach High School hoping to find out why the South End school maintains a permanent spot on the list of worst high schools.

It wasn't the building. Rainier Beach is a nice-looking building sitting on one of the best pieces of real estate in the city. There are stunning views of Lake Washington and a bucolic park across the street.

Many of the teachers were young, bright and diverse. I spent time in the classroom of one teacher whose own background included degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University. Rainier Beach was using a three-year federal magnet grant worth close to $1 million to develop its arts programs and a new $6 million Performing Arts Center was near completion.

Rainier Beach's improvements have been stubborn but inadequate. It has had great students and great moments. But in the end, what most of us remember about Rainier Beach is that the school once opened with just a handful of textbooks. The drama reverberated on the evening news and school officials were accused of deliberately neglecting the school because its students are children of color. The district, stung by the criticism, opened its coffers.

I asked the principal why the school had so few textbooks. She told me students take the books home and fail to bring them back. After a few years, you're left with very few books. Couldn't the parents be counted on to bring the books back, I asked? The principal shrugged.

Back then and even now, a band of South End parents and activists has been persistent critics of the district's treatment of Rainier Beach. During my visit at the school, they picketed out front. A telling moment came when a teacher marched out and invited the parents to come inside and pitch in. The group declined.

Manhas must rework his battle strategy by understanding this critical concept: Academic equity and quality will only come when principals expect students to return their books, when teachers consider giftedness the norm and when parents stop complaining and march in to take ownership of their child's education.

Until then, we'll continue to gaze hungrily and enviously at gifted education.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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