After dozens shared their opinions at a meeting Wednesday evening, the Seattle School Board rejected a proposal to blend gifted and general education students at Washington Middle School.

The board had a tied vote after more than an hour of deliberation. With member Scott Pinkham absent, the vote was 3-3. When the vote is tied, measures do not pass.

Board members considered the change in order to make way for a possible partnership between the nonprofit STEM program Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and the middle school. Washington Middle School, in the Central District, is one of several Seattle schools that serve students designated as “highly capable” in separate settings from the rest of the student body.

That model of serving highly capable students would not have worked with the TAF because the nonprofit doesn’t track students by academic aptitude, said board member Jill Geary, who proposed the change in an amendment to the district’s Student Assignment Plan.

The decision, or lack thereof, marked a flashpoint in a raging debate among parents and district officials about how to address persistent racial disproportionality in Seattle Public Schools’ gifted program, known as the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). White students make up 38% of the students at the school, yet comprise the majority of gifted program classes.

The proposal before the board drew praise and protest from those who showed up to comment at the meeting. 

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“You’re eliminating the HCC site in the South End, where the majority of our equity problems lie,” said Austina De Bonte, president of the Northwest Gifted Child Association. 

Board member Eden Mack, who voted against the amendment, said she believes TAF could be successful, but the proposal needed more time for engagement with families, who say they were surprised by the quick introduction of the change. She invited the district to bring the proposal forward again.

Bringing TAF to the school has been debated for months, Crosscut has reported.

Trish Millines-Dziko, TAF’s co-founder, said she wasn’t sure what the next move would be.

“Who are you trying to convince?” she asked the board. “Because all I have talked to so far is HCC families. We haven’t talked to any gen ed families.”

Chief of Student Supports Concie Pedroza said the district has held five community engagement meetings around the proposal to partner with TAF.

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“Whenever they don’t like the answer, there is a question about process,” she said.

The district hoped to adopt TAF’s model in 2020 to improve outcomes for students of color. The program places an emphasis on project-based learning, job shadowing and mentorship. At the nonprofit’s campus in the Federal Way School District, in 2016, 95% of students graduated from high school and test scores were higher than the district average.

Board members who voted for the amendment said they agreed the engagement process wasn’t ideal, but questioned delaying the decision.

“This whole issue is on fire in a big way,” said board member Brandon Hersey. “But who is going to throw a bucket of water? We gotta be the ones. It’s not perfect — the process is far from it. But we have an opportunity in front of us to do something about it.” 

Hersey, who teaches in Federal Way, said, “TAF is black excellence. It’s one of the best examples of black excellence we have in this state. Bar none.”

Earlier this fall, Seattle schools officials proposed a districtwide phaseout of the HCC model — in which students who score high on intelligence tests attend schools alongside only each other at a few designated schools — in favor of a model where most of their needs are addressed at their neighborhood schools.

White students made up 47% of Seattle schools’ population last year, but about 66% of about 5,000 students in the highly capable cohort.

The district’s proposal didn’t garner enough votes to move forward with the School Board. Critics say the district has already struggled to provide the same academic opportunities across all its schools.

A task force of community members and district staff will work on providing recommendations about advanced learning programs until December. District officials said they intend to solicit community input, but don’t have a timeline for bringing a new proposal to School Board members.