General education was not meeting Millan Philipose's learning needs. Now a student at Garfield High School, he didn't love school until he entered a gifted program, which he argues must be preserved for students like him.

Share story

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth of about a dozen student essays we’ll be publishing for Education Lab’s Student Voices program, which is partnering this year with Project Homeless. Know a student with a story to tell about homelessness or education? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Mohammed Kloub, at mkloub@seattletimes.com.)

When I started kindergarten, I went to school every day expecting to be ignored by my teacher, to be bullied by my classmates and to learn nothing.

Why? At Wedgwood Elementary, a neighborhood school in one of the richest and whitest parts of the city, my extreme shyness and profound nerdiness alienated me. That I was one of the only students in my class who could read or do arithmetic only added to my social problems. The sole academic enrichment I was offered came in the form of extra math work sheets that I could finish in just a few minutes.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle.

· Find out more about Education Lab  

General education was not meeting my needs.

Everything changed when I transferred to Lowell Elementary School, former home of the Accelerated Progress Program for gifted students, now called the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). It was my salvation. Yet in the name of racial equity — which I admit is sorely lacking in Seattle’s current gifted program — opponents of academic tracking call for the end of separate classrooms for highly capable students.

At Lowell, my love of math was no longer treated as abnormal. My teacher encouraged me to read chapter books. Despite the hourlong commute, I began to love going to school for the first time in my life. The school’s policy of dedicating entire classes to HCC students, a model known as the self-contained gifted classroom, allowed me to find a place where I was academically challenged and socially accepted.

My experience was not unique. According to a meta-analysis published by Northwestern University in 2017, grouping students by ability can cause significant improvements in academic achievement for all. The rewards of ability grouping at a classroom level are particularly high for academically gifted students. That was clear to me when I continued with the program at Garfield High School.

But Garfield, despite being one of two designated high-school pathways for the HCC program, is at the vanguard of the movement to dismantle ability-grouped classrooms. Garfield’s “detracking” movement began with Honors for All in September 2016, a controversial initiative that forced all freshmen to take honors humanities classes. It continued two years later with a decision that silently extended Honors for All to sophomore English and eliminated the standard-level U.S. history class for juniors.

Some argue that this style of detracking is urgently needed to improve the racial equity of advanced classes. Garfield teacher Richard Truax wrote an essay for The Seattle Times that compared the self-contained gifted classes at Ingraham High School to the racial segregation at the center of Brown v. Board of Education. Our student newspaper has attacked the gifted program, publishing opinion articles with headlines such as “APPartheid” that portray the HCC as a means of preserving institutionalized racism.

There is an undeniable lack of racial diversity in Seattle’s advanced-learning programs. Last school year, black and Latino students represented a combined 27 percent of the district’s population, but only 6.2 percent of the HCC, according to the district.

This inequity is unacceptable, but eliminating our current system would be harmful and unnecessary.

Consider the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system, a district lauded for creating a gifted-education program with racial minorities enrolled at high rates. In Miami, students receiving free and reduced lunch are held to a lower test-score requirement to qualify for entrance into the gifted program. Teachers, administrators and school psychologists also receive specialized training to recognize bright students from underrepresented minorities.

Missing from this list of successful reforms is any attempt to detrack the gifted program. Gifted students in Miami have access to a series of self-contained classes from kindergarten to eighth grade before they are assigned to a magnet high school with a wide array of AP classes, a model identical to Seattle’s gifted program. Miami’s success shows that academic tracking doesn’t always give rise to racial segregation.

To improve racial equity, Seattle should implement Miami’s reforms to the testing and referral process. It need not dissolve the existing gifted track. We cannot risk becoming a city where the only gifted children who can access a suitable education are those whose families can afford private-school tuition. Instead, we must strive for a public-school system that offers strong students of all backgrounds the opportunity to work together in classes designed to fulfill their potential.