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Originally published Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 3:52 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Delivering education that's focused and precious

Kids come to school loaded down with problems. Those problems are what adults should target for battle, not the burdened kids themselves.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

I broke down Monday and saw "Precious," the award-laden, tear-jerker movie about a girl physically and sexually abused by her parents and poorly served by her school.

This isn't a spoiler but the movie's dramatic arc was Precious' successful bid for deliverance, assisted by a caring teacher and a social worker, each of whom could stare down Jack Bauer from "24."

Life isn't a Hollywood movie but what if every student waging the kind of battle Precious waged could count on strong backup from the adults around them?

Few can. That's the heartbreaking conclusion I reached later when I attended a town-hall meeting hosted by Mayor Mike McGinn to galvanize families around the public schools.

The mayor has set himself an important, if not tall, task of injecting some substance into Seattle Public Schools' "Excellence for All" motto. The reality hardly raises eyebrows anymore: An excellent education in Seattle is obtainable, but for students attending school in Seattle's poorer, largely southern neighborhoods, it is blocked by hurdles steep enough to trip up many students before graduation day.

Nearly half of all students miss 10 or more days of the school year, a troubling sign because absenteeism is the top predictor of which students will drop out. A disproportionate number of Spanish-speaking students are failing, yet bilingual funding is always on the chopping block. There aren't enough career counselors to hear students' dreams and aspirations.

In the largely minority South End schools, "teachers feel like they're in a powder keg," says Gerald Hankerson, who used Seattle's school-choice program to get into and graduate from Roosevelt High School in the North End.

Hankerson is on the board of the city's Racial Social Justice Initiative Roundtable and from his purview describes overburdened teachers and principals who feel they must battle the police over how to punish a misbehaving student.

This is the fault line in the battle about education reform. I'd argue the debate isn't just about academic rigor but equal opportunity to succeed. Growing inequality in the schools promises to make education — not health care — government's biggest expansion.

The opportunity is ripe in Seattle, where a $117 million Families and Education levy is up for renewal in 2011. The current measure funds before- and after-school programs, family-support workers in elementary schools and health clinics in all high schools and some middle schools.

The voices of Hankerson and others at the town-hall meeting underscored what I've been thinking for a while. Here's what McGinn should propose with the next levy: a cadre of tightly focused programs built around a cradle-to-college approach. Check out the Harlem Children's Zone, where a community-based organization provides a plethora of poverty-addressing services in a single 97-block radius.

If every city did this, every girl like Precious could count on her school because the school could count on the community.

The Obama administration is behind a similar effort: the Promise Neighborhoods initiatives, $10 million divided among 20 community-based organizations nationwide to create wraparound services from child welfare to mental health for students. This is not a one-time effort. The administration has requested $210 million in 2011. The Promise money differs from the $4.5 billion Race to the Top fund by going directly to community services supporting struggling students.

Lighten the load of schools, provide them more backup and maybe educators will be less harried. As it is now, teachers and principals are trying to teach while serving as doctor, social worker, police officer and, sadly sometimes, mom and dad.

"More schools need to be warm, welcoming and supportive places for students and parents," said Sam Terry, an ultimate-Frisbee coach in the district. "We treat youth as though they're the problem, they may be up against problems, but they're not the problem."

Terry's right. Kids come loaded down with problems but those problems are things the adults should battle, not the kids themselves.

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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