Teacher and parent Richard Truax shares his concerns about the way the highly capable program is handled at Ingraham High in Seattle.

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(Editor’s note:  Education Lab welcomes guest essays about your personal experiences with education, whether you’re a teacher, parent, student or anyone who has attended or worked in schools.  This is the second of two essays we’ve recently received which, coincidentally, both focused on Seattle Public School’s programs for highly capable students.  Find the first here.)  

Diverse learning environments are richer learning environments.  The late Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren recognized this 62 years ago when he penned, in the powerful Brown v. Board of Education decision:  “Separate facilities are inherently unequal.” In Seattle, unfortunately, our public high schools are too segregated. Much of this comes from neighborhood patterns and tracking in our schools. Both of these problems are hard to solve. But in the case of Ingraham High School, Seattle Public Schools has aggravated the issue by creating a special program for its largely white Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), called IBX. IBX is not the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program that was in place at Ingraham before IBX was created. IBX is a special track for these advanced learning students. This program is detrimental to the learning of both IBX and non-IBX students.

Until six or so years ago, Garfield High School was the magnet school for students in the district’s HCC program.  Garfield has struggled with racial tensions since the program started. The demographics of HCC is disproportionately wealthy and white.  Garfield consistently struggles to shake the image of “The Two Garfields” or the “School Within a School.”  This is despite the fact that the advanced classes at Garfield are open to any student who attends. So when the school district decided to expand the HCC program to Ingraham, did they look at the challenges Garfield was facing and try and build a program that would avoid this racial tension? No, instead they adopted a model from across the lake – at Bellevue’s Interlake High – which raises many of the same concerns as IBX.  At Ingraham, HCC students spend part of the school day in their own classes while some students are right next door doing the same curriculum using the same texts and at times, learning from the same teachers.

In my 15 years at Garfield I’ve had the pleasure of working with HCC students. The talents and academic abilities of students at the top of this cohort are truly amazing. But the reality is that the program has students with a large range of abilities, one that has grown larger over the last decade as the size of the program has more than doubled.  While all or nearly all of Garfield’s valedictorians in a given year are HCC students, there are also HCC students with 2.0 GPAs, and students struggling with the usual challenges of high school.  And there are many non-HCC students at Garfield outperforming their HCC colleagues.

Students test into HCC as early as six years old by taking a test that’s essentially an IQ test.  Once they’re in, there are no performance requirements for staying in. District officials have told me they didn’t look at the performance data of this group when creating the IBX program.

There is no academic argument to segregate a school based on an IQ test. Would the orchestra teacher at Ingraham be justified giving the #1 violin seat to a student based off a test they took when they were six?  The universal answer to that would be no. So why are we doing this in academic subjects?

This segregation hurts the students in the HCC program as much as it does the rest of the Ingraham community. They lose the rich learning that comes from a diverse learning environment.  The worst of this segregation at Ingraham is in the humanities as both the language arts and social studies classes are the most tracked. So students are missing out on the rich and diverse viewpoints that could be shared in class.

Our board and district administrators struggle with what they term the “achievement gap.”  Multiple district goals are aimed at reducing this gap.  Yet, this same board and administration are intentionally creating policies that lead to racial separation at Ingraham High. They do so while scratching their heads wondering why we can’t close what is really an opportunity gap.  A simple first step would be to eliminate the IBX program at Ingraham and allow the school to be One Ingraham.

Richard Truax is a National Board Certified Teacher in his 25th year teaching social studies in Washington public schools, the last 15 at Garfield High. He is also the parent of an Ingraham Ram.