Did you know Seattle Public Schools has a service called Highly Capable that serves 4,896 of our students, 9% of our student body, while the national average is 2%? Did you know this advanced learning service is highly segregated? Of all participating students, 67% are white, 1.6% are African American, and less than 1% are Native American. Seattle Public Schools offers a variety of supports to address the needs of academically advanced students, including Highly Capable (HC) services. Our Highly Capable services include a self-contained, first through eighth grade Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). Providing Highly Capable services is required by state law, the cohort model is not.
We test more than 5,000 elementary students each year, including universal cognitive testing for all second-grade students at Title I schools for admission, yet we still don’t have diverse representation in HCC. When student demographics in any educational service are disproportionate, we must examine our institutional structures to figure out why. We can clearly see that HCC doesn’t represent the district’s diversity. SPS must examine and confront systems and approaches that lead to disparate access and uphold institutional racism.
There’s been a lot of talk and misinformation about the district’s efforts to examine our district policies and practices around Highly Capable services. For close to four decades, the district has endorsed the current model. At the same time, our community has taken the district, superintendents and school boards to task, and called on us to do better and do more. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that upholds racial segregation and continuously produces such clear disparities while failing to address them.
So, we are trying a new approach. For 17 months, an Advanced Learning Taskforce has been meeting to explore possible solutions to increase diverse representation. Three weeks ago, initial policy recommendations were presented to the School Board. Since then, there’s been confusion about the implications and misinformation about the recommended changes.
The requested policy changes won’t decrease academic rigor or eliminate advanced learning or Highly Capable services. We recognize there will always be students who need an alternative placement to be appropriately served. However, we need the opportunity to re-imagine a more equitable model that allows our services to represent the giftedness in all our students, no matter their location, ethnicity or economic status.
We have a chance to undo legacies of racism and chart a new, better course for all advanced learners. Our Highly Capable identification process must change to recognize the giftedness present in our students of color. Under a new model, neighborhood schools would be equipped and supported to identify and serve most of our advanced and gifted students where the cultural context of students and their families is taken into account and honored. No longer will we expect students to fit into a predetermined service model. Instead we will shape advanced learning services and supports around the unique strengths and needs of individual students, expanding access and opportunity in every community.
Real change takes courage and a commitment to our values even in the face of the unknown. The proposed policy changes are one step in our efforts to move the district toward the educational justice promised in the district’s new strategic plan, Seattle Excellence, and Board Policy 0030, Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity.
I accepted the superintendent position because of the progressive talk about racial equity in our school district and across our city. However, at every turn, I find that in Seattle, we struggle to live those championed values. I am unwilling to accept this.
Garfield High School is the longest standing Highly Capable high school site in the city. During my Listen and Learn Tour, students called Garfield “Apartheid High” or the “slave ship,” referring to the physical segregation of students and classes. While this description of a celebrated school may make many uncomfortable, I encourage our community to listen closely to the words and lived experiences of our young people. Equity work is hard, but our students deserve our best thinking and are asking us to be brave by facing our challenges and confronting racial inequities head on.
There are no broken students. There are only broken systems. The cohort model as it exists right now does not serve all our students well. All students that walk through our doors should know that we believe in their brilliance and potential, and our policies and practices need to reflect this belief. Change is necessary. Change is possible. We just need the will.