The discussion over advanced learning in Seattle schools has been fraught from the beginning.
The discussion over advanced learning in Seattle schools has been fraught from the beginning. FatCamera/Getty Images

Later this month, the Seattle School Board is expected to begin the process of dismantling the Highly Capable Cohort, a program that separates high achieving students into their own classrooms at specific schools, rather than having them attend their neighborhood schools. Now, however, a state senator has introduced a bill that, if it passes, could make this more difficult—and costly—to the Seattle school district.

The discussion over advanced learning in Seattle schools has been fraught from the beginning, in no small part because the issue at the heart of it all is racial equity and Seattle Public School’s lack of it. Like many districts around the U.S., SPS’s Highly Capable Program is dominated by white and Asian students while black, Hispanic, and Native American students are severely underrepresented. The numbers aren’t good: According to the Seattle Times, white students account for 66 percent of the HCC, Asian students make up about 12 percent of the HCC, Hispanic students make up around 4 percent of HCC, and less than 2 percent of HCC students are black, even though black students make up 15 percent of the total SPS population. This means that Seattle schools that house HCC classrooms are essentially segregated by race, with white and Asian students in some classrooms and black and brown students in others.

Advocates for maintaining the program, including parents and students of color, have argued that the solution isn’t to end the program, it’s to expand who has access to it. But at this point, the school board seems inclined to choose the nuclear option: Students will be housed in general ed classrooms, and teachers will be tasked with instructing kids of all different ability levels together, likely supported by technology.

This will not, however, happen at all once: The first school whose HCC program is on the chopping block is Washington Middle, a school in south Seattle that also happens to be one of the more diverse HCC schools in the district. Last year, the district proposed ending the HCC program there and partnering with the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a local STEM nonprofit that doesn’t track students by test score or aptitude. This proposal was rejected by Washington Middle teachers and the school board last year, but many in the district, including Superintendent Denise Juneau, continue to push for it.

Besides the fact that some parents don’t want their kids hooked up to screens all day, which may very well happen if the proposal to partner with TAF comes to fruition, opponents say dismantling the program will be far more expensive than the cohort system because, for it to actually succeed, SPS would have to invest in more teachers, smaller classrooms, and create a different school schedule with longer class times. While this isn’t impossible, among those who support the cohort model, few have faith that the district will actually take the needs of the highly capable students seriously.

That’s where Sen. Jamie Pedersen comes in.

Pedersen, a Democrat in Seattle and a parent of children in the HCC program, has introduced a bill that would mandate that if the cohorts is dissolved, schools, in collaboration with parents, would be required to create individualized learning plans for highly capable students. It also guarantees that parents would have the right to sue their districts if they fail to comply.

“This isn’t about my kids,” Pedersen said. “My kids will be fine. But I’ve heard from people whose kids weren’t getting their needs met at their elementary schools. They were becoming disciplinary problems, the parents could see the kids sliding off the rails, and access to HCC has been a life-saver for those kids and those families. This is about them.”

Others, however, disagree not just with the cohort model, but with the idea that some kids are “gifted” at all. In an email that a SPS parent obtained via a public records request, Keisha Scarlett, the district’s Chief of Equity, Partnerships, and Engagement, wrote that HCC programs are “based upon the ‘manufactured brilliance’ of the children of mostly white and affluent families. Children who are not inherently more gifted than other children but benefit from the resources their families and our systems leverage to uphold to redlining in educational spaces. This promotes a scarcity frame and opportunity hoarding.”

Scarlett did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she is, according to the district’s website, in charge of overseeing “all racial equity initiatives” in the district. And this attitude is common among district leadership, said one SPS teacher who requested to remain anonymous: “They don’t see giftedness for what it is, which is a form of neurodiversity. They only see it as privilege.”

According to state law, all students, including those designated highly capable, must be served by their districts, and Sen. Pedersen says his bill isn’t about forcing the district to maintain the cohort, but about making the district understand the true cost of dismantling it.

“I wish that this was not necessary,” Pedersen said, “but after months of engagement, I didn’t feel like there was an adequate response from the district. I hear reports from parents who have been told, in essence, if their kids aren't getting what they need, they should send them to private schools. That is so fundamentally at odds the role of the public school system that I felt like I could not stay silent.”

The district itself, however, has little to say about this bill, at least at the moment. In response to a request for comment, a district representative said, “We’re always very interested in any proposed legislation that may impact education. We’ve just recently become aware of the SB 6282 proposal. We will be watching to see how the bill progresses.” The school board is scheduled to vote on dismantling the HCC program at Washington Middle and partnering with TAF on January 22.