The parents and students huddled behind the microphone, irritated or encouraged by the district’s proposal to blend gifted and general-education students at Washington Middle School.

Tensions ran high at last week’s Seattle School Board meeting because it came shortly after the district proposed to do the same with its entire highly selective gifted program. Neither plan moved ahead.

“Going back to the failed model of expecting teachers to just do more and differentiate across several grade levels in every classroom and every school is not a plan,” parent Kathleen Lendvay told the Board.

Washington Middle is a microcosm of the feverish debate over addressing racial segregation in what’s known as the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC).

As district officials focus on what they call educational justice for black students, they point to a mismatch between overall demographics and the students who get to be called “highly capable”: while last fall, 14.2% of SPS students were black, just 1.7% of students in HCC were. The rest were predominantly white and Asian. So the district proposed phasing it out and delegating that programming to neighborhood schools.

HCC, which offers coursework up to two years above grade level in math and reading, is the main way that Seattle delivers accelerated instruction. Access is concentrated in a network of select schools, where about 5,000 gifted students learn together, separate from the rest of the school.

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While state law requires districts to identify and serve gifted students, it does not require a cohort model.

In trying to phase it out, district officials pointed to the system’s history. The presentation they’ve used to make their case to the public and Board members shows a timeline starting in the 1980s and mentions two programs, one of which aimed to encourage white families to participate in school desegregation. The disproportionality has existed since that time, they say.

But that version of events is incomplete. The timeline goes back farther: According to district archives, Seattle’s first iterations of gifted education actually arrived in the 1960s. Those earlier efforts championed IQ tests to answer the question districts from Northshore to New York have asked: Who are the exceptional kids?

A national movement

For as long as society has measured intelligence, its members have argued over how.

The first government division to use intelligence tests in a big way was the United States military. During World War I, it administered the tests to more than a million recruits, according to the National Association for Gifted Children.

“It started from a national security perspective,” said Nancy Hertzog, who directs the University of Washington’s Robinson Center for Young Scholars. “We really consider Sputnik as a precursor to gifted education,” she said, referring to America’s Cold War with Russia.

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That remained a rallying cry through at least the mid-’70s.

“In Russia … they have only one program and that is a gifted program. If the Russians approach it this directly, does it not make sense to attempt to beat them at it?” read a letter from the Northwest Gifted Child Association to the Seattle School Board in 1976.

The Board created its definition of gifted learners in 1961, the year the Washington State Legislature required the state education department to create a division and to fund districts’ gifted programs.

Seattle ran pilot programs throughout the ’60s. They continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Most used intelligence testing to select students. The Accelerated Primary Program started in 1964, took students in their grades’ top 5% and studied how they fared if they skipped a year. Others, like the Model Enrichment Center, launched in 1967, gave students more freedom by doing away with rote memorization and grades.

By 1974, district officials discussed the need to capture a broader range of students, according to archived materials.

Over the years, Hertzog said, the focus of gifted education changed from classifying top scorers on IQ tests — which have been criticized for narrow scope and cultural bias — to finding where kids need to be challenged in order to thrive.

But in many places, including Seattle, test scores remain a key qualifier for advanced instruction.

Gifted education grows in Seattle

Advanced programming has changed so much here it’s hard to draw a line between what the programs were and are.

The two programs the district links to HCC are the Individual Progress Program (I.P.P.) and Horizon. Both were created in 1978 and offered advanced instruction to a select group of students who met cut-off scores on intelligence tests.

But while I.P.P. catered to a small, selective group initially confined to one school, Horizon was the first large-scale attempt at offering accelerated instruction across a few schools, like HCC does now.

It was pitched as one of several magnet programs meant to encourage voluntary desegregation. The admissions process had families apply, and used 13 measurements for giftedness — far more than now. Because it was an integration tool, district officials guaranteed admissions to a fixed percent of students of each race in the application pool. But because most of the applicants were either white or Asian, and qualifying meant meeting cut-off scores, demographics remained disproportionate, according to a 1979 review.

Many, including the Southeast Seattle Community Schools Group, opposed the idea. Using magnets to desegregate schools hadn’t worked elsewhere, the group wrote to the School Board in 1977, and essentially hid segregation within school buildings.

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Donald Felder, a former teacher and principal, remembers walking into Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in the Central District after it became a Horizon magnet campus.

“It was two hallways. Black children were all one side, in the hallway running north to south. White children were in the other one,” said Felder, who is black. “They only came together in the intersection and on the playground.”

Felder and his son, Donte, had firsthand experience of how testing in gifted programs can lead to the exclusion of students of color.

After seeing promise in him, a teacher recommended Donte for the gifted program at the former Whitworth Elementary School. After two years of doing well, Donte was given a random, end-of-year test to determine if he could stay.

Donte failed.

It was 1981. He was 8 or 9, so his memory is hazy. But he remembered crying as the teacher relayed the news.

“It felt like an educational demotion,” said Donte, now a teacher at Orca K-8 in Seattle. “I could never look at (a test) the same way again.”

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Around the region, a history of attempted change

Districts like Highline, Northshore and Bellevue have had gifted programs for about 30 years. A consistent trend: grouping advanced kids away from other students, said Hertzog.

But the amount of time Seattle’s HCC kids spend in separate settings — from elementary through high school — is somewhat unique, said Hertzog, who serves on the district’s advanced-learning task force.

Bellevue designates certain schools for separate gifted classrooms but students aren’t assigned to a yearslong cohort, a spokeswoman said. The district provides accelerated instruction in certain subjects at neighborhood schools.

Seattle schools outside of the HCC network are supposed offer some advanced instruction too, but parents say the offerings are inconsistent. That’s been one of main arguments against a neighborhood schools model.

“Being a black mom, it’s really hard talking to schools,”  said parent Ya’Vonne Hubbard, who said she feels that sometimes schools don’t really want to partner with parents.  “They (can be) very dismissive.”

Changes to gifted programs in Seattle faced considerable pushback and anxiety about their quality. An early example came in 1984, when district officials considered changing which schools hosted Horizon because its racial makeup threw off desegregation requirements.

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“Let the board know you’ll send your kids to private schools if Horizon is dropped,” a School Board member named Ellen Roe said, according to a Seattle Times story.

The district has tried and retired different ways of equalizing access via racial quotas, a nonverbal test and screening more kids. In some places, like Miami, fixes applied at a much larger scale diversified the pool, Education Lab reported.

Seattle officials say these methods haven’t produced necessary changes, but HCC supporters say SPS hasn’t tried hard enough to improve diversity before dismantling the cohort.

Racial imbalance is also a problem in Highline’s self-contained program, offered primarily from second to fifth grade, said district spokesman Catherine Carbone Rogers. The district recently tried some solutions — including a Spanish screening exam and using academic growth to identify students. While there’s been some progress, “we have not had the results we would like to see,” Rogers wrote in an email.

Some school systems, like New York City’s, want to cut gifted programs altogether.

Donte, who attended Horizon in the 1980s, said he loved the program and his peers. But he’s come to believe that expanding access can’t happen while the current cohort model exists. If the district can pair a shake-up with more professional development for teachers, he’s open to it.

“It’s not working right now,” he said. “This is the time to take a risk.”