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Seattle school officials propose advanced learning changes to undo institutional racism

Seattle Public Schools
Demographic data from the Seattle school district show racial disproportionality in its highly capable program.

For decades, the Seattle school district's program for academically gifted students has been dominated by white children. Disproportionately few students of color, especially black, Latino or Native American students, have been represented.

But the district is considering making big changes to fix what officials say is an institutionally racist structure. It’s part of the district’s push to prioritize the needs of historically underserved students, particularly African-American males, under a recently approved strategic plan.

The highly capable program in the Seattle school district has long consisted of self-contained classrooms in certain schools starting in first grade, and children then move up together as a cohort. Parents have to refer their kids for testing, which takes place on a Saturday. Some parents choose to keep their children at neighborhood schools even after they’re designated as highly capable, but district officials acknowledged that students’ access to accelerated coursework is inconsistent and varies by school.

Navigating the referral and testing system can be confusing and daunting, and the district has long known that the way students are identified as highly capable is not equitable. A lot of families don't know how to refer their kids or even that the program exists. Often, more privileged, white or Asian families are the ones who prioritize getting their kids into the program.

At a recent school board work session, Superintendent Denise Juneau spoke candidly about the racial disproportionality. She said she started realizing it shortly after taking her position and hearing about the segregation at certain schools that have students in a general education track and students in a highly capable track.

Juneau used the example of Garfield High School, which she had heard is sometimes called a “slave ship” or “Apartheid High” because of the way students are so separated by race.

“Since that time, I’ve learned that this is a generational legacy. This program segregation has been endorsed by this district for generations,” Juneau said. “This is unacceptable and embarrassing. None of us should want to lead this type of educational redlining.”

District officials are now proposing to gradually move to a system where students attend their neighborhood schools and get advanced coursework in a regular classroom from a teacher who has been trained to differentiate instruction.

Along with that shift, district officials say they intend to prioritize identifying students of color or low-income students who should get academic acceleration to eliminate the racial disproportionality in advanced learning.

The district would provide “an array of equitable services” in all schools, in addition to “alternative placements” for some students. Wyeth Jessee, chief of schools and continuous improvement, said some students might need instruction in an “alternative placement” setting, for example, children who are both highly capable and who qualify for special education services or children who are extremely academically advanced.

The ideas from the district are preliminary, but already there’s quite a bit of controversy. Jessee acknowledged that in his initial statements at the work session.

“This topic alone has divided many communities. I’ve seen parents cry. I’ve seen whole school communities be divided,” he said. “For me, as a former principal, and as the one who now leads our schools, I just want to say I hope that we rise above that and remind ourselves that we are the leaders in this community, and that we can engage in it, even when we don’t agree.”

While people generally agree that the racial disproportionality in the program is unacceptable, some people have criticized the district’s proposed solution and the way it’s gone about proposing changes.

The district had set up a task force on advanced learning more than a year ago. But even before that group of parents, teachers and community members had voted on all of their recommendations, district officials started presenting ideas to the school board. That upset some task force members.

Ji-Young Um is a member of the task force and the parent of a student designated as highly capable. Um said her daughter attends their neighborhood school because she wanted her to be in a more racially and culturally diverse environment, rather than a segregated program.

But she and some other parents of color on the committee say the current self-contained model is still preferable, as long as the district adopts universal cognitive screening and other identification methods to ensure kids of different racial groups have equitable access. They also recommend that the district start a pilot program of providing advanced learning services at neighborhood schools and track how well they perform.

“There are a number of us who felt, well, why aren’t we even talking about the possibility or the option of making the cohort more accessible?” Um said. “How do we increase representation of African-American students, Latinx students, Pacific Islander students, et cetera?”

The task force has some more meetings scheduled for coming months to discuss recommended changes to procedure. Meanwhile, district officials have said they plan to bring forward some proposed policy changes to the school board next month.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.