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Two Seattle School Board directors block proposed policy change for highly capable services

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Adrian Florez

UPDATE, Oct. 11: Adds clarification about the recommendations from a group of people of color on the advanced learning task force.

The Seattle school district’s proposal to change how it serves academically advanced students hit a roadblock Tuesday, after two school board directors voiced concerns in a committee meeting and chose not to advance a draft policy district leaders had put forward.

The district had proposed a policy that would shift emphasis away from self-contained classes for students in the highly capable program. District leaders, including Superintendent Denise Juneau, had said the change was needed to address long-standing racial disproportionality in the program.

Under the current system, families whose children test into the program can choose between self-contained classes at certain schools starting in first grade or attending a neighborhood school. According to district documents explaining the policy proposal, Seattle Public Schools served 3,800 students in “exclusive and segregated settings” last year, compared with 793 students identified as highly capable who chose to attend neighborhood schools.

But the student population of the highly capable program is disproportionately white. Latino, black and Native American children are underrepresented. Many families with children in the program have called for the district to remove barriers in the identification process to bring in more students of color. For example, testing currently takes place on a Saturday and is initiated by a parent referral; some families have advocated for universal cognitive screening during the school day.

Other districts, including Northshore and Tacoma, use universal screening to identify students for highly capable services.

Board director Rick Burke said he was concerned that the district pushed ahead with the proposed change before an advanced learning task force of community members finished its work.

“We want our district to operate in a collaborative space. I’ve heard that from our superintendent. I’ve heard that from our board. I feel that myself,” Burke said. “And I do not believe that we’re in a collaborative space on this particular policy.”

Burke and Scott Pinkham, another board director, said they would not support moving the policy change out of the curriculum and instruction policy committee. Pinkham said he was concerned that some task force members felt that their input wasn’t taken into account by district leaders.

“Looking at what I’ve been hearing from the community, they feel that this still needs more work,” Pinkham said. “The people of color on the committee felt that their ideas weren’t included."

Some people of color on the task force distributed draft recommendations before a board work session last month, urging that Seattle Public Schools continue to provide self-contained services for students identified as highly capable. But the group urged the district to make changes to the identification process to make the cohort racially equitable. The group also proposed creating a pilot program to serve some students identified as highly capable at their neighborhood schools and track how well it worked. 

Nevertheless, district leaders said separating highly capable students into their own classrooms causes harm to other students who are not in the program.

“Telling our students every year, year in, year out, that, 'Hey, you’re a student of color, you can’t go to that class because you’re not part of highly capable because you didn’t test in when you were in first grade’ – that’s inappropriate,” said Wyeth Jessee, chief of schools and continuous improvement. “I think it’s unacceptable.”

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.