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Tuesday, June 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

The Cunninghams are moving out

While the rest of us spend the summer soaking up enough sun to make the winter bearable, Jeff and Martha Cunningham will be selling their Seward Park home and moving out of the Seattle Public School District.

Their dilemma wouldn't raise a hair on my sunscreened skin if not for the suspicion that they are just one family among many pondering such a move.

Here is their dilemma: Their daughter is a straight-A student who fills her summers with enrichment activities such as the University of Washington's Summer Stretch program. The teenager narrowly missed getting into the highly coveted Transition School at the UW's Robinson Center for academically gifted students.

After completing the Spectrum program for top students at Washington Middle School, she listed Roosevelt and Garfield high schools as her first and second choices.

The Cunninghams' daughter was denied both choices, an unusual occurrence in a district that brags that most of its students receive their second, if not their first, school choice. Instead, this teen was assigned to Rainier Beach High.

Rainier Beach is considered one of the district's most troubled schools. It is making a slow rebound under a new, highly regarded principal. But she has housecleaning to do and it isn't certain she'll receive the support from the district and her own teaching corps to do it. Moreover, a recent protest by South End parents highlighted some of the school's most egregious shortcomings; namely, its lack of textbooks and its overabundance of teachers who barely teach.

A recent finding that the school had $369,000 that it didn't spend has been attributed to miscommunication between it and the district. Parents like me call it a quagmire we don't want to step in.

These things have made Martha Cunningham resolute. Until Rainier Beach gets a grip on its problems, it won't get its grip on her daughter. A plea from School Board member Jan Kumasaka to give the school a chance, adding that "Rainier Beach will have their books restored and will be filling positions for their drama program" left Martha Cunningham unchanged, except to wonder what drama had to do with her daughter's academic achievement.

Martha Cunningham is not about to turn her daughter into the rope that helps pull Rainier Beach out of its rut.

Too bad, because the Cunninghams are exactly what Rainier Beach needs.

A fine principal can only do so much to turn a school around. Involved parents are key. Rainier Beach needs parents willing to raise money for special programs, write grant applications for projects and help the principal keep track of her budget. This is how other schools do it.

I can picture Martha Cunningham in just this type of setting. I can visualize her East Coast brash converting the well-heeled families who live along Lake Washington within spitting distance of Ranier Beach, but who send their children and their money elsewhere. And I can see the Cunninghams' daughter blossoming under a rich, diverse experience at Rainier Beach.

Superintendent Joseph Olchefske believes he is morally right to wage a court battle to keep the schools diverse. I agree with him that diversity is a key in a good education. But a cheaper, quicker way to build diversity would be to accommodate people like the Cunninghams.

Turn Rainier Beach around like the district turned around Ballard and Nathan Hale. You won't be able to keep the Cunninghams away.

Otherwise, you're asking this family to bet their daughter on what appears to be a pipe dream. I did that once. Several years ago, I spent a week at Rainier Beach and met bright students and committed teachers. One student touched me with her smarts and sure sense that the world was her oyster.

The student transferred from an exclusive, private school and assured her worried parents she would mine Rainier Beach for everything she could have gotten at the private school. And indeed, she did. She took the most rigorous courses Rainier Beach had to offer. Teachers cheered her on and the principal called her the school's best answer to its critics.

I placed my wager on her success.

I called her recently to see how she was doing. She is working and taking classes at a community college.

No one can judge anyone else's life. Yet, I was disappointed not to find my student strolling the campus of a top-notch university, wowing instructors with her intellect. She is so smart and talented that I believed nothing, not money or access, would hold her back from major success. But something did.

This is a story I don't want to tell about Martha Cunningham's daughter four years from now. She doesn't want me to tell it either. This is why the Cunninghams will spend the dog days of summer packing and moving someplace where they can choose the school and actually get in.

Lynne K. Varner's e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com.

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