The district is considering dismantling the gifted program.
The district is considering dismantling the gifted program. JAMIE GRILL/GETTY IMAGES

On Monday, a group of parents in Seattle filed a complaint against the school district with the state attorney general’s office. Their issue: The district’s handling of the gifted program, which some in the district, including the superintendent, are attempting to dismantle entirely.

In the complaint, the parents, who are calling themselves Equity and Access to Support Every Learner (EASEL), claim that dismantling the program will violate a state law that requires advanced learners have access to accelerated learning and instruction. They call the district’s process for resolving this long-contentious issue “egregious” and have asked for an immediate investigation from the state. (The AG’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

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This complaint is one in a long string of efforts to save a program that has been controversial almost since the beginning. The Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), as the program is called, moves students who score in the top 2 percentile of standardized exams out of general education and into separate classrooms, where they work above grade level. This, members of EASEL told me, benefits both the HCC students and the general education students, because teachers aren’t tasked with instructing students of vastly different skill levels and abilities.

One of these concerned parents is Howaida Shahin, whose three children have been or are currently enrolled in the HCC program. An immigrant from Egypt, Shahin had no idea that the HCC program existed when she enrolled her son, now in ninth grade, in Seattle schools—or that the program may be a good fit for her child.

“My son would go play over at the neighbor’s house and [the neighbor] told me that I should test my child, but I didn't understand what he means,” Shahin told me. “I was afraid to ask because I didn't want to embarrass myself.”

We were in the kitchen of Shahin’s family’s home in Seattle’s Central District. Her children had paused their homework to tell me about their schools, there was soup on the stove, and the family cat kept jumping into my lap while we sat at the kitchen table.

Until fifth grade, her son had attended his neighborhood elementary school, and he would come home every day with notebooks and papers filed with doodles. His grades were fine—good, even—but he seemed bored and listless.

“Socially, he was not happy,” Shahin said. “His mind was always wandering.” She started to think he may have had ADHD or even depression, but the school kept reassuring her that everything was fine. His teachers, she said, never told her about the HCC program.

“After a few years, I started to have a light go off in my head,” she continued. “I started to understand that there is another system, and to get into that system, my son has to be tested.”

That other system is the HCC, and once her son was tested and moved into the program, Shanin says it changed his entire academic experience. For the first time, he was challenged and engaged and he started to make friends.

But while Shanin and other parents are fighting for the program’s continued existence, it’s become a flashpoint in a battle that has pitted parents, students, teachers, and members of the school board against each other—with one side accusing the other of perpetuating a long history of racism, classism, and white supremacy in Seattle Public Schools.

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Seattle’s battle over academically gifted programs is in no way new or unique: I remember fights over gifted programs, and who belongs in them, when I was in elementary school in North Carolina the early '90s. It’s a discussion that goes back to almost to the foundation of gifted programs in the U.S.

Today, however, these programs have become so divisive that some cities are considering scrapping them altogether. In fact, the process has already started.

In 2018, Seattle Public Schools hired Denise Juneau as superintendent. Juneau, who had run for Congress in Montana before serving as superintendent for that state, prioritized implementing a new strategic plan for the district, one that focused on addressing the performance gap between white and Asian students and everyone else. (In fact, her compensation depends on it: According to Juneau’s contract, she would receive a $15,000 bonus for adopting a new strategic plan by the end of June 2019.)

The performance gap is severe. While white students in SPS perform, on average, two grades above the average on national standardized exams, black kids, on average, perform one and a half grades below the national average, according to a 2016 study out of Stanford.

This is one of the widest gaps in the nation, and the statistics are even more stark when it comes to the HCC program. According to data published by the Seattle Times, white students accounted for 66 percent of the HCC (but only 47 percent of the overall student population). Asian students make up about 12 percent of the HCC (and roughly the same percentage of the overall student population), Hispanic students make up around 4 percent of HCC (but are 12 percent of the total population), and less than 2 percent of HCC students are black (even though black students make up 15 percent of the total population). This means that some Seattle schools, particularly those that house HCC classrooms, are essentially segregated by race, with white and Asian students in some classrooms and black and brown students in the rest.

This racial disparity is deeply entrenched in advanced learning in Seattle. The district’s first gifted program, Horizon, was established during a period of mandatory busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s. The program was an attempt to keep white families from leaving the district entirely. In 1984, according to the Seattle Times, white students accounted for 70 percent of the Horizon student body. The number of black and brown students wasn’t much higher than it is now.

Mynique Adams, a librarian, parent, and a member of EASEL, was a graduate of Garfield High School’s Horizon program. She said it changed her life, providing her with rigorous training and educational opportunities that her siblings, who were enrolled in general ed, just didn’t have. She’s the only one of her siblings to go to college (Howard) or grad school (UW), and she credits, in part, the Horizon program for her success.

When her son entered school, she wanted him to have the same opportunities—opportunities that she might not even have known about had she not had them herself. That, both SPS parents and administrators say, is one of the problems with the HCC program: All too often, low-income and minority parents don’t even know it exists, much less how to get their kids enrolled.

“I was one of the very few black and brown kids in the accelerated program back then,” Adams told me. “The district still hasn’t done what it needs to do to be more equitable and diverse. If they do that, you will see a surge in children of color in this program.”

Today, Adams’ 9-year-old son is one of the few black children in the HCC program at Thurgood Marshall Elementary. But it was not easy to get him enrolled. Like many HCC parents, Adams told me about barriers to getting her son tested. The district says it screens all children from kindergarten to second grade for the program, but Adams says her son was never flagged, even after testing two years beyond his grade level in math and reading at the end of first grade.

“The teachers are 84 percent white and the research shows that white teachers have very low expectations for children of color,” Adams told me. “They are also the gatekeepers in terms of assessing children and recommending them for these programs, but they cannot see their potential.”

Adams and her husband did eventually get their son tested, and he placed into HCC. But the decision to take him out of his neighborhood school and enroll him in the HCC program did not come lightly. Her son would be one of the only black kids in his class. She knew what that was like—and she wasn’t sure she wanted to send her son into that kind of environment.

“Look,” she told me, “as parents, we are always negotiating what is in the best interest of your children, but when you have a black or brown child, the stakes are so much higher. The decisions you make for that child can impact him for the rest of his life.”

Either she could keep him in her neighborhood school, where he was bored and understimulated but far from the only black kid in his class, or she could send him to the HCC at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, where he’d be in the minority but his education would actually serve him. They decided to do it.

There were some hiccups. The first year, she says her son witnessed a group of white kids beat one of his black classmates on the playground. Adams was appalled when the principal sent out a letter to Muslim parents asking them to allow their children to eat during Ramadan, which fell during end-of-term testing this spring and is traditionally a period of fasting for Muslims. But, academically, she says the program has been life-changing. Her son is no longer bored during school and he’s thriving socially, too. When I asked what would happen to her son if the program is dissolved, she sighed deeply, and said, “I really don’t know.”

She was not the only parent to say that same thing. “I know what the wealthy white people are going to do,” one parent told me. “They are going to put their kids in private school and our kids will be left behind.” Horizon was devised to stop white flight, and the fear is, dismantling the HCC program will just bring it back.

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Washington Middle School, a HCC school in South Seattle, may find out sooner than later what happens when the program is dismantled. The district has proposed ending the program there and implementing a different program in partnership with the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a local STEM nonprofit that doesn’t track students by test score or aptitude.

This is one of the EASEL parents’ complaints. “This will be a break in the Highly Capable pathway for Southeast Seattle, but will not affect schools in North or West Seattle,” the complaint to the attorney general reads. “If this change is made and implemented, the removal of services and the break in the pathway for Highly Capable students will have a disparate impact on students of color in Southeast Seattle due to the demographics of that area of the city when compared to Seattle overall.”

While the proposal has thus fair failed to get School Board approval, according to a statement from the District: “The superintendent will continue to work with the school board regarding Washington Middle School as a possible location for the Technology Access Foundation.” And TAF does have plenty of supporters—particularly among parents of students who are not in the HCC program.

“My main issue with HCC is that is offers to some kids what you could be offering to everybody,” says Matt Halvorson, the parent of a fifth grader in general ed and the publisher of Rise Up For Students, a blog commenting on equity in Seattle Schools. “We can do differentiated learning and give everyone valuable experiences that validate their genius and recognize them as special, which everybody is. HCC, as it is, exacerbates existing gaps on racial and socioeconomic lines. If some kids are benefiting but it's also having a harmful impact, then I don't see how that is something we should perpetuate.”

While others, including the members of EASEL, say the solution isn’t to dismantle the program, it’s to reform it, Halvorson is certainly not alone in wanting to see HCC end. A teacher in the HCC program (who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) told me that the program gets very little support from the district, and, in fact, those who do support it are often considered inherently racist.

“It's very clear that if you support gifted services and if you’re not calling these kids 'privileged white racists,’ you get frozen out,” the teacher told me. “I've been doing this for seven years and there has not been one training to even teach teachers what giftedness is and what it isn't. They think it's privilege, but it's actually a form of neurodiversity.”

Dismantling the program and mainstreaming the gifted students could work, the teacher says, but it would not be cheap. “It would require halving the class size. You would need extra assistance, three to four different curriculums in the same class, and we would have to change the school day because we can't do that kind of teaching in 50 minute periods. There's a way to do it, but it would be massively more expensive.”

This teacher, like all of the of the HCC parents I spoke to, thinks that the racial and socioeconomic disparities in the program could be addressed by universal testing. If all students were tested, then entry into the program would be less dependent on teachers, whom many say have an implicit bias against black and brown children.

Still, this idea is not without critics as well, especially those who say that the testing itself is biased because it only values one particular type of intelligence. Some students may speak English as a second language; others may not test well at math or reading but are more creative or analytical than average, and they are typically not served by this program. (Another issue with testing is that students who don’t initially qualify can pay to undergo private testing and then use that score to appeal. This can cost upwards of $700, and, once again, advantages families with higher incomes.)

Some districts have sought to address bias in testing by lowering the bar for admissions for low-income and minority students. In Miami, the district has created a two-tier system: Students of families that are middle-class or wealthy must score at least 130 on IQ tests in order to be admitted to the district’s gifted program, while low-income and non-native English speakers can score 13 points lower. This system, when it comes to representation, has largely been a success: Today, the distribution of students in gifted programs more accurately reflects the racial makeup of the district.

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While parents and students on both sides of this issue may have strong feelings about HCC programs, the reality is, according to some researchers, most educational interventions simply don’t work.

“This is a fact that is revealed over and over again in educational research but people don't want to talk about it because it's uncomfortable,” said Freddie DeBoer, an education researcher and the author of the forthcoming book The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice. “Most students sort themselves into ability bands very early in life and they stay in those bands for the entirety of their academic lives. Of course, there are individual exceptions, but the kids who start out scoring low as early as preschool will likely score low in elementary school, middle school, and high school.”

The data backs this up. A 2017 meta analysis looked at 101 studies of educational interventions from a 15-year period, and found that the only intervention that improved student outcomes was small group tutoring, and even then, the increase in performance was modest. Another study compared students who just barely qualified for prestigious, academically rigorous programs with those that almost qualified but didn’t, and it found that there was basically no difference in their outcomes later in life. The students who didn’t attend these programs but had basically the same aptitude as those that did performed just as well in higher education, careers, etc.

To DeBoer, the research is clear: Programs like HCC might seem essential to parents, but they probably don’t make much difference to kids themselves. “For the people concerned that the gifted kids won't get the education they need, the gifted kids are going to be fine regardless of whether they are in the gifted program or not,” he said. “On the flip side, the people who think this is going to create equality are going to be disappointed. You get rid of the gifted program, there is still going to be a hierarchy in the classroom. All you are doing is moving where the hierarchy is.”

DeBoer thinks the problems go much deeper than who is welcomed into these programs. Instead of dismantling the programs or expanding them, he thinks we need to do away with the myth that to succeed in life, you must succeed in school, go to college, and get a white-collar job, because the reality is, trying to make students without scholastic aptitude into scholars simply won’t work.

“We need to move away from standardization,” he says. “We’ll end up with some kids who spend most of their time in school working on engines and some kids who do oil paintings, and, yes, some kids who take calculus. If we know that abilities are difficult to change—and they absolutely are—we can keep beating our head against the wall trying to change them or we can change our definition of what it means to succeed in schools. Those are our options.”

Restructuring society to value trades and skills as much as education, however, isn’t something Seattle Public Schools can fix. So parents and the district continue to fight a battle that, in the end, might not make a bit of difference for students. The next step in this battle is quickly approaching: Next week, a district task force will issue recommendations on what to do about the HCC program, and then, soon after, superintendent Denise Juneau will make her recommendation.

Will the HCC program survive? The parents of EASEL certainly hope so, but if it doesn’t—and if the state attorney general’s office considers their complaint—the next step of the fight may take place not in the classroom, but in the courts.

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