A state lawmaker is wading into the controversy over Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) plan to change the primary way it currently delivers gifted education — by teaching advanced students in separate classrooms.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, has introduced Senate Bill 6282, which requires school districts to develop individual learning plans for every gifted student before phasing out separate classes for gifted learners. Including Pedersen, 10 of out 11 members of the Senate’s education committee have co-sponsored the measure. If passed, it would affect Seattle’s proposal to end segregated learning environments for advanced learners, which has prompted outcry from some parents.
The debate over gifted education in Pedersen’s home district of Seattle has raged since the beginning of this school year, when the district proposed phasing out its highly selective Highly Capable Cohort program (HCC). Students qualify for the program by taking tests; the students with the highest scores are labeled Highly Capable. They complete accelerated coursework in a network of schools in classrooms with other HCC students, largely separate from the general population. Students who perform well on intelligence tests, but don’t meet the HCC cutoff score, can still qualify for some advanced-learning opportunities in their neighborhood schools — but parents say the offerings are inconsistent.
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau has argued the HCC program, which predominantly enrolls white and Asian students, created a legacy of racially segregated classrooms in the network of schools that teach HCC students. In an effort to change that, her administration has proposed ending the system of separate classrooms and instead blending gifted students into classes with their peers. Advanced learning would be offered through neighborhood schools. School Board officials rejected that proposal in September. Some modified version of the plan is expected to resurface this spring.
Juneau said in a statement sent by her spokesman that she was “deeply disappointed” by the bill and “believes it represents the state reaching into decisions that are best made at the local district level.”
While state law requires school districts to identify and serve advanced learners, it doesn’t mandate any specific delivery model. If the bill is enacted, and if SPS phases out HCC, the district would have to work with parents and guardians to create a plan for each student moving out of a self-contained classroom describing how they’ll receive “accelerated learning and enhanced instruction,” the bill states.
Emerson Elementary School teacher Vanessa Meraki said she likes the idea of more individual learning plans, which are legally binding documents that are typically used to outline services and learning goals for special-education students. But she added she has reservations about who would get them under Pedersen’s bill, and that not all HCC kids need them.
“It looks like the way the bill is written, it protects the privilege of those who are already identified” as gifted, said Meraki, who served on the district’s advanced-learning task force, which delivered its recommendations last month.
Pedersen said he was initially indifferent about the district’s idea to change its delivery model, but was “stunned” at the district’s more immediate plan to replace the cohort classes with a STEM program at Washington Middle School. Washington, located in the Central District, is the only middle school that services HCC students living in the South End, the city’s most racially and economically diverse region. He said he was concerned the new model would not meet HCC students’ needs.
Under the district’s proposal, only HCC students starting sixth grade at the school next fall would be outside the cohort setting. Current HCC students would not be affected. The School Board votes on the measure next week.
“This bill is not meant to say ‘do or don’t do the cohort,'” said Pedersen, who has two sons in the HCC program at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, which feeds into Washington Middle. “But if you’re going to change midstream … you do have a responsibility” to address those students’ needs.
His sentiments echo those of parents who filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office last month, which in part claims the district’s plan to phase out the cohort at Washington Middle would disproportionately restrict access to HCC for gifted students of color. The complaint is still under review.
“The appearance is that you’re going to take something away from the South End again. If you’re going to phase out the cohort, why not do it throughout the city?” said Chun Ng, an attorney and parent who co-signed the complaint.
Brandon Hersey, who represents the South End on the Seattle School Board, called the idea that changing Washington’s program would impede access for students of color a “fallacy.”
“There are very few students of color in the HCC program in the first place,” he said. “If the program were doing what it is supposed to be doing, then maybe we could have a conversation about it.”
Washington Middle School’s HCC program, which teaches about half the school’s 600 students, is somewhat more diverse than those at other schools, according to district data. But Black students, who make up 22% of the school’s population, are still underrepresented. Just 6.6% of them — nine students — are enrolled in HCC. Eighty percent of white students at the school are in HCC.
Districtwide, HCC students are about 66% white and 2% Black.
Last month, school-district officials said they picked the school for a partnership with the STEM nonprofit Technology Access Foundation (TAF) because outcomes for Black students, a group the district pledged to prioritize, lagged behind those of Black students in other middle schools. Some HCC advocates say they support TAF coming to the school, but not if it requires dissolving the cohort.
Hersey said he and other School Board members, along with Juneau, plan to attend a hearing for the bill next Wednesday, the same day the Board will vote on the TAF partnership. He said Pedersen’s effort would have been better spent providing more state funding for school staffing.
“For a state legislator to use his privilege to legislate policy for one school, in one city and one school district is absurd,” he said, and an “overreach.”