Seattle Public Schools' gifted program is great at selecting well-prepared students who went to sophisticated preschools, an outside evaluator...

Share story

Seattle Public Schools’ gifted program is great at selecting well-prepared students who went to sophisticated preschools, an outside evaluator said Monday. But it often overlooks poor students and racial minorities, resulting in a mostly white program, she said.

An 80-page report released Monday painted a picture of a divided and sometimes racist culture in Seattle’s gifted program. It said African-American students are sometimes isolated and bullied, and a group of disenfranchised parents feel they have no voice.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson said it’s too early to say how the district will respond to the report by four University of Virginia (UVA) researchers. The review is one of several the district has ordered, including evaluations of curriculum, special education and alternative programs. Goodloe-Johnson will use the results to formulate a strategic plan, due this spring.

Report co-author Carolyn Callahan, a UVA professor, said Seattle’s program is good, in general. The district could improve by addressing changing demographics, incorporating new research about gifted education and training teachers, she said.

“We’re not saying throw out this program or do away with this program,” she said. “That was never our intention.”

About 1,300 students are enrolled in the district’s Accelerated Progress Program (APP). The district tests thousands of students in kindergarten through seventh grade each fall. It admits a few hundred who test in the 98th or 99th percentile nationally in cognitive ability and reading and math skills. They can spend their entire public-school experience together, starting at Lowell Elementary School, on to Washington Middle and finishing at Garfield High.

About 70 percent of the students are white, compared with 40 percent districtwide. Only 4 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 39 percent districtwide.

The program is sometimes perceived as a public-school haven for middle- and upper-class parents who could afford to leave the district for private school. But it also has fallen under district scrutiny, and parents worry it will be dismantled, said Stephanie Bower, chair of the APP Advisory Committee of parents and teachers.

“We’ve been fearful for years,” she said. “That’s why we’ve formed such an active advisory committee because they’ve all been afraid of what the district might propose.”

Their biggest fear: that the district will break up the “cohort” of kids who go through the advanced program together. Over the years, the district has suggested several significant changes, including ending APP after middle school and dividing the program among locations. The report didn’t make specific recommendations about program placement, except to say the district shouldn’t develop an all-APP K-8.

Bower agreed with the consultants’ conclusion that the program’s curriculum lacks vision and rigor in classes is inconsistent.

The report said “the philosophy and definition of giftedness in Seattle do not reflect current developments in the field of gifted education.”

But Jane Fellner, an APP parent and longtime gifted-education advocate, was optimistic about the report.

“We’ve been working for a long time in an atmosphere that was not supportive of gifted programs,” Fellner said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the issues of elitism and racism that are long-standing and difficult issues in our district.”

Seattle’s program should develop opportunities for kids who are gifted in one area but not others, Callahan said. And the program should focus on “developing talent” among gifted children in general-education classrooms. Students learning English as a second language, for example, might need time to catch up so they can test into APP.

The report also recommended alternative ways of selecting students, such as nonverbal testing, and called “questionable” a district practice of allowing parents to privately retest children who don’t get into the program after the district test.

Bower said it’s “a vicious rumor” that parents can “buy” qualifying test scores. The district’s tests aren’t as accurate as some private testers’, she said, and the district provides free retesting to students in poverty.

In addition to the APP, the district offers two other gifted programs: Spectrum, which offers accelerated classes at various elementary and middle schools; and Advanced Learning Opportunities, or ALO, which offers advanced work to gifted students in general-education classrooms. About 1,600 students are enrolled in Spectrum, and nearly 300 in ALO.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or