Seattle's Child

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Working for racial equality in gifted Seattle school programs

Seattle Public Schools and parents work toward making accelerated programs more equitable

The Racial Equity in HCC Team, a network of about 100 Seattle parents, teachers, students and community members district wide, has worked hard this year to improve the racial equity of Seattle Public Schools’ advanced learning programs.

The Seattle school district offers advanced classes “for students who have been evaluated for and designated as Highly Capable.” To place into the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC), a student needs to score in the top 2 to 3 percent on standardized tests of cognitive, reading and math skills. SPS also offers Advanced Learning (formerly known as Spectrum) for students who have been evaluated for and designated as Advanced Learners.

However, both accelerated programs overwhelmingly consist of white students. In 2015, white students made up 45.6 percent of SPS population, but were 72.3 percent of HCC-eligible students. That same year, 16 percent of students in the Seattle School district were black, but only 1 percent were in Advanced Learning programs. Among SPS’s 12 percent Latino student population, only 3 percent were counted as HCC- and Advanced Learning–eligible students. This compares to data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2009 that shows black students comprising 16.7 percent of total U.S. students and 9.8 percent of students in gifted programs. Data from the USDE also shows that as of 2009 Latino students comprised 22.3 percent of students nationally and 15.4 percent of students in gifted programs. Among the 200 biggest school districts in the U.S., Seattle has the fifth-biggest gap in achievement between black and white students. Seattle’s white-black gap is also the biggest in Washington.

Stephen Martin, Supervisor of the Highly Capable Services and Advanced Learning Programs for SPS, says, “We have been aware of this disproportionality and have tried a laundry list of initiatives, but what’s new this year is that we now have community partners to collaborate with.”

Devin Bruckner, a parent of a child in the HCC program at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School and the current chair of Racial Equity in HCC, says the district leadership should take more initiative to make this issue a priority.

“I think one reason people don’t tackle this problem in Seattle is they think it’s fundamentally too complex. They shrug their shoulders and say, ‘This is the way it is everywhere,’” says Bruckner. “But the gap for African-American and Latino students in advanced learning is bigger in Seattle than it is other places. And even if Seattle’s gap weren’t bigger, does that mean you shouldn’t try to close it? That’s just ridiculous.”

The advocacy efforts of the Racial Equity in HCC Team over the past year have already demonstrated that change is possible. SPS has been giving all second-graders in mainly Title I (lower income) schools a CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) “screener” to help identify more children for Advanced Learning. In past years, the universal testing alone did not result in much greater representation of students of color, but in 2016 the equity team advocated for better outreach and follow-up with families, closer collaboration with schools, and testing during the school year rather than during the summer.

The district implemented the recommendations and recorded a significant increase in newly eligible students of color from the previous year. The equity team thinks these efforts could be taken even further with universal second-grade screening at all elementary schools in the district, not just Title I schools.

This fall, Bruckner’s team has rallied people who want to see greater equity in Seattle’s Advanced Learning programs to advocate for a concrete list of changes at school board meetings. For example, since teachers often prompt parents to refer their children to the HCC program, the group recommends both better training for teachers on how to identify gifted students and anti-bias training.

Under the guidance of the equity team, Thurgood Marshall Elementary Principal Katherine May has worked with teachers at her school, helping them to recognize giftedness in kids who don’t immediately stand out.

“A kid may come to us not speaking any English at all, but he or she develops language skills very quickly,” says May. “Even though they may not be getting the highest scores on grade-level content, the fact that they are acquiring English so quickly may be a sign of giftedness and shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Some parents with students in the HCC program have expressed concern that broadening the program will make it more difficult for their child to receive the high level of academic rigor they require to stay engaged. May says that fear is misguided.

“Sometimes there is a sense that if a child qualifies for HCC, that they are part of this group that is very similar in terms of their styles of learning or their abilities,” says May. “But within a classroom there is really a range of ability levels. Whether we are thinking about social-emotional needs or academic needs, teachers have always had to differentiate their approaches within that program.”

Eighth-grade students who are enrolled in the HCC program at several Seattle middle schools are currently automatically assigned to Garfield High School. As Garfield has recently reached capacity, the district is now in the process of soliciting community feedback on the Student Assignment Plan (SAP) and developing related future high school boundaries. In early November they’ll bring the recommended SAP changes to the school board.

In the meantime, the Racial Equity in HCC team will recruit volunteers, speak out at school board meetings, conduct outreach in the community, and learn from other programs and districts that have confronted the equity-in-education gap. Bruckner is optimistic that the future will be brighter.

“With greater political will and more support from top leadership, I think we will see change,” she says