It made me happy to see a group of 11- and 12-year-olds sitting together smiling and laughing. It was Saturday morning, around 8:30, and...

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It made me happy to see a group of 11- and 12-year-olds sitting together smiling and laughing. It was Saturday morning, around 8:30, and they were starting school. When the questions began, their hands went up eagerly.

This happens every weekend for a diverse group of students who attend different schools but come together for classes at Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle’s South End.

I don’t doubt that some of them might want to be doing something else, but once they are there, they are engaged.

The students who meet at Aki are part of the Rainier Scholars program, which helps children from minority, usually low-income families achieve in school and beyond. Dropout rates for children in their demographic groups tend to be high, but these kids are going to finish school and go to college.

There have been a lot of stories lately about the large and growing education gap between poor and rich Americans. By some measures it’s now twice as wide as the shrinking gap between black and white students.

There are significant differences in reading and math scores and in college-completion rates.

A New York Times story last month ended with a think-tank fellow saying no one has a clue what to do about the gap.

That’s not true. The children I sat with are the 10th cohort of students to join the Rainier Scholars program. Each year, the program admits 60 students to the starting rung of its 11-year program. The first groups are in college now.

Rainier Scholars is a praiseworthy bandage on a wounded system. It is one of many programs, each with its own niche. Healing the system ought to be the goal, and programs like this show what medicines work best. When I say system, I don’t just mean schools, but how the community affects children from conception to adulthood. Housing, health care, neighborhood safety, the whole package. Education is only part of that, but a central part.

Rainier Scholars takes students who have shown they are smart and engaged and gives them the polish and enrichment kids usually get when they come from households with more money and two college-educated parents.

Kale Reb, now a senior at Chief Sealth High School, came to the program in 2005 with low test scores but was accepted because her fifth-grade teacher said she was an extremely hard worker.

Rainier Scholars guided her through middle school where she excelled and found a spot for her at Chief Sealth, which has an International Baccalaureate program. The idea is to place students in the most advantageous program possible, private schools or public schools with advanced-placement classes.

Reb has been accepted, with all expenses paid, by Kenyon College, a highly ranked private school in Ohio. And she’ll still be a Rainier Scholar. The program has four phases, academic enrichment, academic counseling and support, leadership development and finally college-support services.

Rainier Scholars takes in children just before they enter sixth grade. It’s a valuable service, but the folks there agree that getting to more children earlier would have a tremendous positive impact on outcomes.

Too often communities, faced with education challenges, get stuck arguing over the causes of failure — is it parents or teachers, character or poverty? Unproductive arguments.

Children’s social environment matters greatly. Schools can’t compensate for that entirely, but they can make sure more of the hard work they do is based on what has proved to work best for the particular children in their classrooms.

Taxpayers need to accept that children don’t learn as well when they are ill, hungry, left home alone because care costs too much. And many of them will cost us more in the long-run than the price of a little help now.

Children who are excited about education now will be better citizens later. We need more of whatever gets us there.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

On Twitter @jerrylarge.