Seattle Public Schools is considering dismantling the gifted program to address racial inequity.
Seattle Public Schools is considering dismantling the gifted program to address racial inequity. Skynesher/Getty Images

This week, a task force commissioned by Seattle Public Schools finalized recommendations on how to handle the district’s embattled gifted program.

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As I reported earlier this month, the gifted program—called the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC)—is being reenvisioned, and possibly dismantled, in an effort to address a wide performance gap between white and Asian students and the rest of the student body in SPS.

Currently, the HCC program accepts students who place into the top 2 percentile of standardized exams like IQ tests. Those students then learn in separate classrooms with their high-performing peers. The curriculum in these classrooms isn’t special; it’s just accelerated.

The vast majority of the students in the HCC program are white and Asian, which means that some schools are essentially segregated by race. Dismantling the program entirely is being seriously considered by the district, much to the chagrin of parents with children in the HCC program—both white parents and parents of color.

A group of parents who support the program and are calling themselves Equity and Access to Support Every Learner (EASEL) filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office this month arguing that dismantling the program will violate a state law that requires advanced learners have access to accelerated learning and instruction. This was one in a long string of efforts to save the program, but the AG’s office declined to take it up.

On Tuesday, a task force of parents, educators, and others in the community voted on nearly 50 proposed solutions to addressing racial disparities in the HCC program, as the Seattle Times first reported. The final report won’t be released until later this month, but the task force does not recommend dismantling the program—at least not until the district can prove that mainstreaming these students will actually work. They do, however, recommend reforms, including expanding ways of identifying gifted students. Currently, that’s left up to a teacher's judgment or parent referral. The task force recommends all students be tested for HCC.

The task force also recommends that high performance on standardized tests not be the only path into the program. Instead, students who show high performance in the classroom or an exceptional interest in a subject may be considered as well. They also recommend changing the standards for admission for underrepresented populations. Instead of comparing those students to the overall student population, they could be compared to students in their own demographic. This is called local norms testing and it has worked elsewhere. In Miami, for instance, the district requires some students to score at least 130 on IQ tests, but low-income and English-as-a-second-language students may score 13 points lower and still be admitted.

Mynique Adams, a member of EASEL and parent of a fourth-grader in HCC, is pleased with the task force’s recommendations. “I think they did a very thorough job of getting to the issues that have plagued the district for years,” she says. She’s especially excited about the recommendations for universal and local norms testing, but she also says she doesn’t entirely trust the district to follow these recommendations.

“Our lived experience has not engendered a lot of trust in SPS,” she told me. Adams' child, now a fourth-grader in the HCC, was not flagged by his teachers as gifted even though he tested well above his grade level in end-of-course exams. Adams, who is black, attributes this to implicit bias, which the task force recommends all teachers be trained on.

“I learned that they were thinking of dismantling the program from the Seattle Times, not from the district, and I am an HCC parent,” Adams told me. “I don't understand why [Superintendent Denise] Juneau hasn’t talked to HCC parents of color. We are here. We are not unicorns. We exist. There are families of color who have children in these programs and no one has come to talk to us. It's really, really troubling that the district wants to eliminate these programs in the name of black and brown children when they haven’t even talked to the parents of color to see what is going on.”

The district allows for parents to request that their children be tested, but often low-income parents, immigrants, people of color, and non-native English speakers aren’t even aware the program exists. Universal testing, Adams hopes, will address this.

But still, the recommendations from the task force are non-binding, and she’s not entirely optimistic the school board will follow them. “My fear is that Juneau and the school board will cherry-pick what they want and leave out the rest. I just want to district to be accountable for once, not to issue top-down edicts but to really put the resources and the time and the energy into making this work. If not, it will be just another failed experiment.”

The school board is expected to make a final decision on the future of the HCC program early next year.