Access to acceleratedlearning programs in Seattle public schools has been inequitable for as long as they’ve existed.

The district says they were designed that way — a generation ago, the district created its first advanced learning programs as it was trying to curb white flight, according to Seattle Times archives.

Advanced classrooms are predominantly filled with white children from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, a problem shared by many districts in Washington and big city school districts nationwide. But a new state law compelling districts to find more advanced low-income students — and a big push from parents — caused Seattle school officials to again revisit how the district teaches talented kids. 

The issue spilled into the news recently when Seattle Public Schools (SPS) superintendent Denise Juneau made strong remarks about disparities in the program, calling it “unacceptable and embarrassing” at a meeting, KNKX reported.

So what’s next? Conversations stalled last week. A bid by the school district to eventually phase out its highly selective and segregated program in favor of a blended approach in neighborhood schools failed to get approval from School Board members. Community members are watching the district closely in part because of SPS’ commitment to improve outcomes for African American male students. A 2018 Seattle Times analysis found white kids were 18 times more likely to be in gifted classes than black kids.

A task force dedicated to the cause is working on solutions. Parents are vocal, too, and want a say.

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Here’s what we know so far. 

Do Seattle public schools provide advanced-learning opportunities? 

Yes, but these programs have a long history of inequity.

The school district offers two primary types of accelerated learning. Students who score high on a series of tests qualify for what SPS calls “highly capable” services. A highly capable third grader may enroll at their neighborhood school, for instance, and visit a fifth-grade classroom to learn math.

Elementary- and middle-school students who are “highly capable” could choose to attend schools that offer specialized “cohort” programs, but may be far from home. Highly capable cohort (HCC) students learn alongside other highly capable peers in all or most of these classes. When they’re teenagers, they are eligible to attend one of four high schools that cater to their advanced abilities but don’t offer separate classrooms.

There are tiers of giftedness. Children who need an extra challenge, but miss the cutoff for highly capable programs, are eligible for “advanced learner” services at their neighborhood schools. But these programs are inconsistent — and in some cases, schools may not offer advanced instruction at all. 

How did the HCC program come to be? 

The district developed its first accelerated learning program, Horizon, in the 1970s in an effort to entice white parents to keep their kids in public schools after the district began busing students to racially desegregate schools, according to Seattle Times archives.

A few years later, in 1978, the district added its second gifted program: a more selective, smaller option (75 students max) called the Individual Progress Program.

Both programs segregated students by academic ability. But while I.P.P. was explicitly intended to reflect the racial demographics of the district, Horizon was not, according to Times archives. In 1984, about 70% of Horizon students were white.

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Over the years, the district renamed or ended I.P.P. and Horizon. As the district phased out its desegregation efforts in the 1990s and 2000s, neighborhood schools began offering other opportunities — such as accelerated coursework  — for advanced learners in general education settings. Now, only HCC can deliver advanced instruction in segregated settings.

How does the district decide who is eligible? 

District officials say they screen all kindergartners, first and second graders for giftedness. Children flagged as advanced must then take a series of IQ, math and reading tests. Parents can also recommend children for testing, which typically happens on a Saturday.

The process isn’t simple. Traveling to a testing site can pose challenges to single parents or those who work weekends. The test itself may be stressful for some high-performing students — or may fail to identify kids who are learning English, or have special needs. 

Many parents in South Park don’t know advanced-learning programs exist, says Manuela Slye, who has three children in the district and is also the president of the citywide parent-teacher association.  

“With no knowledge, there’s no access,” she said.

Who gets to be “highly capable?” 

White students made up 47% of Seattle schools last year, but about 66% of about 5,000 students in the highly capable cohort. More details reveal starker disparities, but no gap is wider than that for black students, who make up 14.5% of the district’s total enrollment but a little under 2% of HCC.

Broadened to all gifted students (not just those in the cohort), the numbers change. Of the 10,521 highly capable cohort and advanced-learner students this school year, 65% are white and 2.4% are black.

What is the district proposing? 

Officials proposed giving individual schools and teachers more power to identify skilled students, instead of relying solely on test scores. Their plan also would have brought most advanced opportunities back to neighborhood schools. The highly capable cohort program would go away as it exists today, though some extremely advanced students or those with unique needs would still learn in classrooms with other skilled kids. But the plan didn’t pass out of committee. 

Who are the voices weighing in on this debate? Who makes the decision?

In June 2018, Seattle School Board members commissioned an 18-member task force of parents, educators and experts to study these programs.

But conversations are tense. Some task-force members bristled at the district’s proposal, and wished the district had waited to hear their recommendations, which they expect to finish within three months. 

The task force can only suggest recommendations. It’s up to the School Board to make policy changes ­— and up to administrators to craft specific changes to the programs.

What do parents think? 

Many parents agree that access is their primary concern. The rub is how to fix it.

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Some say the main problem is the way highly capable students are identified. The district should expand the way it screens and tests for giftedness. Ending the highly capable cohort program would “lower everyone’s achievement to the lowest common denominator” but wouldn’t improve access, says Stephanie Juha, a West Seattle parent of two students in gifted programs.

Others want neighborhood schools to offer robust programs, and say they don’t want their children to travel to specialized schools. “We want a model that is advanced education for everyone,” said Naghelli Guerrero, a parent who spoke at a School Board meeting this month. 

How are districts here and across the country approaching this problem? 

Some school systems, like New York City’s, want to halt gifted programs altogether. Northshore expanded its screening and invested $175,000 in a nonverbal test in an effort to make evaluation more inclusive.

But funneling more students of color into programs is half the battle — they also need continued support once they arrive, as Federal Way recently learned. Miami-Dade County Public Schools used a sliding scale for admission to gifted programs that differentiates between lower- and higher-income students. Many see the district as a national model because it spends millions on additional staff who provide additional tutoring for gifted programs.

What’s next?

The task force will work until December. District officials said they intend to solicit community input, but don’t have a timeline for bringing a new proposal to School Board members — nearly half of whom aren’t running for reelection this year, and will be gone by year’s end.

Corrections and clarifications: The demographics of the district’s highly capable cohort reported in this story were updated after The Seattle Times learned of errors in the district’s data — the district sent The Times a table showing the percentage of white kids enrolled in HCC as 59%. It is around 66%, according to state data. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of white students who qualify for advanced learning programs. It is 65%, not 68%. Also, due to inaccurate historical information provided by Seattle Public Schools to The Times, the story has been updated to reflect Seattle Times archives and clarify how the first advanced learning programs began.