Seattle Is Putting an End to Its Gifted Program and Replacing It With Something More Equitable

Seattle used to have a program to identify gifted students and put them in special classes or schools. These gifted students were collectively known as the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). But the HCC was not racially equitable which meant that in 2018 the school system started taking steps to dismantle it. This article is from 2018:

It’s been three years since the Seattle Public School district hired an equity specialist to address the racial disparities in its advanced learning opportunities (ALO). But today, Seattle’s highly capable cohort (HCC) remains mostly the same: white. 

“Numbers would suggest that within our city … predominantly white children are more gifted than other cultures and races, and we know that is absolutely not true,” says Kari Hanson, the district’s director of student support services. “Clearly we’re not identifying our children of color and we need to get down to why.”…

This year, 11.8 percent of highly capable cohort students are Asian, 1.6 are African American, 3.7 are Hispanic and 13 are multiracial. This falls far short of representing the diversity of the district, where 15 percent of students are Asian, 15.7 are African American, 12.3 are Hispanic and 9.4 are multiracial.

Parents who were part of the program filed a complaint with the attorney general noting that state law required accelerated learning for advanced students.  A task force which included parents was created to look at the issue and by the end of 2019 it issued a report recommending that eligibility requirements be adjusted but that the program itself not be shut down.

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.

Waiting for proof that the new plan works before mandating it seems like a good idea but in 2020 the Seattle School Board moved ahead with a plan to get rid of the HCC and replace it with a new curriculum created by a non-profit called the Technology Access Foundation. When minority parents complained, they were accused of being tokens.

“My request is that you please consider the disservice you would be doing to the minorities that are already in the HCC program,” one father testified on Wednesday. “The program does more for black children, particularly black boys, than it does for their peers.” He said that in his neighborhood school, his son’s cognitive abilities weren’t recognized and he was treated as a behavioral problem…

The district, however, was largely dismissive of these parents’ concerns. This has deeply frustrated some HCC parents, a few of whom broke into tears while testifying at Wednesday’s board meeting. Director Chandra Hampson, who is serving her first term, said the parents of color who testified against TAF were being “tokenized” and used by white parents. This, to some HCC parents of color, was patently offensive.

As we’ve seen elsewhere, the idea behind the new model is that gifted kids should be in the same classroom with everyone else. In Seattle it’s called the whole classroom model and it means breaking each class up into multiple groups and having them do different activities under the supervision of just one teacher.

In an effort to make the program more equitable and to better serve all students, the district is phasing out highly capable cohort schools. In their place, SPS is offering a whole-classroom model where all students are in the same classroom and the teacher individualizes learning plans for each student. Teachers won’t necessarily have additional staff in the classroom; the district is working to provide teachers with curriculum and instruction on how to make it work…

On a recent day in a first grade classroom, seven advanced learners sat on the floor reading silently on their iPads. Several others wrote independently at their desks. A special education student wrote with a paraprofessional aide at their side. The rest of the class sat in a front corner of the classroom while the teacher read a book out loud.

There’s a stronger sense of community because all of the students are from the same geographical area and there’s an array of diversity in the types of learners in class, said Rina Geoghagan, the school’s principal, who used to be the principal at Decatur and Cascadia elementaries — both highly capable cohort schools.

“They bring their home experience and their culture, and that is really unique,” Geoghagan said. “It makes for a really rich learning environment.”

A rich learning environment and a strong sense of community sound nice but the bottom line here is that the advanced learners are sitting on the floor reading their iPads or trying to write while the teacher reads to the main part of the class. Apparently these groups rotate throughout the week so the scene could be different on different days but there’s no way the 7-10 advanced learners are getting as much teacher time as they were under the old HCC program. Similarly, the teacher has to spend some time with the advanced learner which means the mainstream of the class is also being left to their own devices for part of the week.

There’s still no evidence that this is going to work. Kids are still be identified as advanced learners, they just aren’t all in the same classroom together. Will this group suddenly become more equitable? Will it make as much progress? No one knows yet. But this may be a reason why more parents who can afford it pull their kids out of public schools.

The move to end the Seattle gifted program was not merely another boneheaded decision. It was one that does measurable damage. It’s also another decision added to the long list of reasons why so many parents have pulled their kids from SPS.

Parents with financial means will rightly pull their kids from SPS and enroll them in private education so they’ll get the academic challenges to meet their needs. It will be an environment where their gifted child isn’t purposefully held back…

When their grand plan tanks, they’ll just pin it on another -ism, tossing kids’ education out with the bathwater for the next big edu-fad. Trust them to again swap a working classroom model for the latest, shiniest failure in progressive education theater.

This is similar to California’s plan to de-track students by preventing 8th graders from taking Algebra in Middle School. It creates a significant additional hurdle for advanced learners but there’s no evidence it really helps the other students much. It certainly doesn’t close the achievement gap it was intended to close. That’s why San Francisco repealed de-tracking nearly a decade after adopting it. We’ll probably have to wait quite a few years for Seattle to decide whether getting rid of the gifted classes benefitted anyone at all or if it just held the advanced learners back.

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