This week, the Seattle School Board will make a final call on the adoption of a STEM program at Washington Middle School, a decision shrouded in the politics of gifted education in Seattle.
On Wednesday, the Board will vote on whether the district will run the school alongside the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a significant power-sharing arrangement with a third-party entity to operate a school for the district. It would include the oversight of things like hiring decisions and curriculum.
The district pitched this partnership as a way to turn around outcomes for students of color, bolster STEM education and improve culture at the Central District school, which has faced challenges with leadership and staff turnover.
But the decision regarding a single school has attracted heightened scrutiny because it would eventually phase out Washington’s Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) classes, the district’s primary mode of delivering advanced instruction.
HCC is a highly selective program offered in a network of schools. Students in the program, who qualify based on a series of tests, spend their elementary and middle school years with other HCC students for some or most of the school day.
Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau has argued the program, which predominantly enrolls white and Asian students, created racial segregation within schools that host HCC, and it has a racist legacy. To change that, her administration proposed phasing out HCC, and instead blending gifted students with their peers and offering advanced learning at neighborhood schools, which sparked an uproar. Board members rejected that proposal in September; they might consider a modified version this spring.
Washington Middle School has become the flash point in this long-simmering debate over how to best address racial imbalance in gifted education, attracting spectators outside of the school’s community, including state lawmakers. If the measure passes, which seems probable — based on statements by board members in interviews and in public meetings — the school would join forces with TAF for the next decade.
Here are some things to know about TAF and the proposal the School Board will consider tomorrow.
What is TAF?
TAF, founded by a former Microsoft employee, started as a STEM-focused after-school program in 1996. The program emphasizes project-based learning, job shadowing and mentorship. It operates a school that teaches sixth through 12th graders in partnership with the Federal Way School District, TAF@Saghalie, and has a smaller presence in schools in that district and in Tacoma.
The organization says its model gives students, especially students of color, the opportunity to work on real-world problems in their core subject areas — like how to address oil drainage from cars in a local park — and exposes them to skills they would need in a career. Students constantly collaborate and give feedback to each other, said Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director.
“The first thing you’d notice walking into a TAF classroom is that if the teacher is not delivering a lesson, it’s noisy,” she said. “The classrooms are more interactive, more involved in smaller groups.”
Students are grouped into “houses” of about 80 students, who take core classes together.
The nonprofit doesn’t track students by academic ability, which is why the proposal would eventually eliminate HCC at Washington. Dziko says the model of project-based learning allows students to challenge themselves and explore their interests.
What is the program’s track record?
TAF@Saghalie’s test scores and general student outcomes roughly mirror those of Federal Way Public Schools, though dual-credit and ninth-grade course success rates were markedly higher than Federal Way averages last school year. The school serves general education and advanced students.
During the same school year, the organization says it connected students with 60 internships, graduated 100% of seniors on time and posted a college acceptance rate of 95%.
What are the details of the partnership?
Washington Middle would enter into a joint operating agreement with TAF that would take effect this fall. The TAF model would first teach incoming sixth graders, building up to the entire school. HCC would be phased out over the next two years, but Washington will remain a pathway school for gifted students in the South End, which means advanced learners can still go there even if it’s not their neighborhood school. It would last 10 years and cost $1.1 million for the first three years.
How will TAF and the school work together?
TAF would bring in its own team of support staff, including a college- and career-readiness program manager and specialists to help with math classes, who manage the school in partnership with existing staff. The agreement says TAF will invest in robotics, engineering and design labs for students during and after school at a vocational studies institute housed within Seattle Central College.
After a few years of managing things on the ground, the agreement says that TAF will step back and act more like consultants at the school. It also allows TAF to have input on the operation of the school, including hiring teachers, the renewal of the school principal’s contract and course offerings. The agreement allows current Washington teachers to seek a transfer to another school if they don’t want to work within the new model.
Two School Board members, Eden Mack and Lisa Rivera Smith, have an amendment to the proposal that would allow incoming sixth graders in the HCC program to transfer to another campus where HCC is still in place.
What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
The district hoped to adopt TAF’s model in 2020 to improve outcomes for students of color. Stakeholders have voiced a broad range of opinions on TAF, some connected to HCC and some not.
Some welcome the change as necessary and overdue. Some parents agree that TAF could be promising for Washington Middle, but not at the exclusion of HCC, fearing it will not address advanced learning needs. Others, including some teachers at the school, say they were blindsided by the process and still have unanswered questions about how TAF will be incorporated into the existing structure of the school.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the partnership was the district’s first ever agreement to jointly run a school with a non-profit. Though it has more power-sharing than most if not all other partnership agreements the district has, it is not the first.