I am a 2018 graduate of Seattle Public Schools and a former student in the Highly Capable Cohort. I acknowledge the many problems with the district’s current model of advanced learning. But dismantling the Highly Capable Cohort program is not the solution.
For context: I was the kid reading “Harry Potter” in kindergarten. By second grade, I was so far ahead that my teacher sent me to assist in the school cafeteria to keep me busy. My sole educational supplement was a fourth-grade math book that I was too intimidated to broach on my own. I was not just a “smart kid;” I was isolated, beyond what any of my classmates could understand. Entering the Highly Capable Cohort program in third grade was the gasp of air I didn’t know I was lacking. School no longer felt like an avalanche of mind-numbingly easy work and classmates who scorned me for intelligence I couldn’t explain or justify. For the first time, I didn’t feel guilty for being smart. For the first time, I had friends at school.
There are perceptions that advanced learners get something “extra” in their self-contained classrooms, but HCC is a service, like any other form of special education. The cohort model provides the same teachers, buildings and resources as the rest of SPS. Curriculum is just delivered at an accelerated rate. Perhaps more importantly, HCC is a social environment where intelligence is celebrated, where students like me who might otherwise have been cast out as “nerds” or “weirdos” can find their place and their people.
Article 9, Section 1 of our Washington state Constitution states: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children … without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” Seattle’s advanced learning system is broken. Currently, this system perpetuates institutional racism, and does not serve all students without distinction. We must find ways to expand opportunities and access. But access will not come from denying an educational lifeline to all students because the current structure isn’t perfect.
Eliminating the cohort model from Seattle’s advanced learning programs will not eliminate advanced learners. The district has already attempted neighborhood-school-specific advanced learning with Advanced Learning Opportunities. This program was unregulated and site-specific and altogether ineffective. Few teachers, if any, have the time, resources, or motivation to successfully teach across a five-grade-level bell curve of ability. Without teachers and staff fully committed to the Sisyphean task of differentiated learning in all schools, the system crumbles.
Dismantling HCC without a thorough plan for an alternate program does not benefit anyone. General education students will not benefit from a couple of new, bored kids in class, especially if time and resources are diverted in attempts to impose site-based acceleration. Advanced learners will not benefit from shaky, halfhearted attempts at differentiated classrooms and will certainly hurt from the loss of a cohort where they can be themselves. What Seattle Public Schools needs is a way to expand knowledge of and access to advanced learning programs so that all students, regardless of background, can be served.
A first step is universal testing for giftedness, which does not currently occur in our district. Another is making HCC an opt-out program, automatically enrolling all qualified students to ensure they do not miss out on services due to lack of information or difficulty navigating the district’s complex logistics. Another solution is a sliding scale for HCC admission based on race or socioeconomic status, a system The Seattle Times reported was successful in Miami at vastly expanding access to advanced learning for students of color, low-income students and English Language Learners. One extreme solution could even be removing the threshold that causes problems of access: making HCC a self-contained option program available to all students.
There are many solutions aside from eradication — costly, yes, requiring effort, it’s true — but with alternatives available, why choose to suppress opportunities for all students to excel?