The new schools superintendent in Seattle is sure not messing around in her campaign to phase out the district’s famed selective programs for advanced kids.
“None of us should want to lead this type of educational redlining,” is how Denise Juneau, the schools chief of about a year, put it at a School Board work session last month.
Redlining is what they called it when banks refused to loan money to black people.
Juneau was applying that term to a longstanding program in Seattle in which kids test into an accelerated curriculum, starting in elementary school. It used to be called the Accelerated Progress Program, or APP, and today is called HCC, for Highly Capable Cohort.
As is true around the nation, the “cohort” part is the rub. It means the kids go to advanced classes together, at a pace about two to three years ahead of grade level. It’s arguably the most successful academic program in Seattle schools’ history, but also a flash point because two-thirds of the kids who qualify for it are white.
Juneau called out Garfield High School in particular — the Central Area school that U.S. News & World Report just ranked among the top 3% of high schools in the nation (485th out of 17,245 schools).
“I heard that the students there called it the ‘slave ship,’ or ‘Apartheid High,’” Juneau said, according to audio from the meeting recorded by KNKX public radio. “This program segregation has been endorsed by this district for generations, and it’s unacceptable and embarrassing.”
As a dad of two Garfield kids, one graduated and one currently a senior, I’m going to try not to be quite as inflammatory as Juneau.
It’s true, though, that the school — like most schools — has been grappling for years with inequities. One of which is that some kids arrive there in ninth grade already taking college-level calculus. While others may still be doing long division, as well as struggling against strong tidal forces outside school (more than 60 Garfield kids last year were homeless, for example).
How do you bring together worlds that far apart?
Nobody has an easy answer to that. The district is signaling that its solution is to move away from most of its accelerated, stand-alone programs over the next few years. The result would be that the HCC program would be discontinued — by 2023 according to a proposal — with kids attending classes in their neighborhood schools.
Currently there are more than 4,000 Seattle kids in this highly capable cohort. To get spots there they had to score in the top 2% on an abilities or IQ-type test.
District data says 67% of HCC kids are white, though whites make up about 47% of the district. Blacks are only 1.6% of the gifted program, though 15% of the district. Asians are roughly equal in the program and the district.
No doubt the imbalances should be addressed. But eliminating a program because it reflects gaps in our society seems both knee-jerk and self-defeating. Why not expand opportunities to get into the program instead?
I’ve been arguing this for years, so I’m certain the district won’t listen to me now. But how about try what they did down in the Miami schools — expand the definition of gifted beyond just IQ test scores, and set up a sliding scale for admission based on socioeconomic status?
It worked — their gifted programs now more closely reflect the schools’ makeup (and achieve academically, too). This newspaper suggested Seattle try this two years ago, but that was ignored.
A group of Seattle parents, convened in 2014, also pushed the district to widen the horizon by testing far more students, especially immigrants and kids of color. Ignored. But when the Northshore School District did this last year it found about 500 low-income or foreign-born students it had missed before.
New York just proposed eliminating many of its advanced programs, for the same racial-divide reasons cited by Juneau. But interestingly some of the most vocal blowback there has come from minority leaders — who argue the only way to truly fix the inequities is to get more of their kids in.
“Cutting HCC altogether will eliminate the most rigorous learning opportunities for all students, including the students of color we are now focused on identifying,” echoes former Seattle school board member Sharon Peaslee, who now works at Ingraham High.
Or put it another way: Juneau labeled the system now as “educational redlining.” But how did they bring an end to mortgage redlining back in the day? By forcing the banks to expand lending, not by shutting down home loans altogether.