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Seattle school board votes to blend gifted and general education at one middle school

Seattle Public Schools

UPDATE, 10:11 p.m.: Adds that the school board voted to approve the plan. 

The Seattle school board approved a measure that has big ramifications for gifted education at one middle school. The plan will eliminate a separate track for students who have tested into what’s known as the highly capable cohort.

The board approved a joint operating agreement with an organization called Technology Access Foundation, or TAF, to run a program focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at Washington Middle School.

Located near the heart of the city’s Central District, Washington serves as a pathway for students from elementary schools in Southeast Seattle who are in the highly capable program. The school also serves students in general education classes, but starting this fall with incoming sixth-graders, students from the two groups will be educated together. 

The highly capable cohort at the school has long been disproportionately white, and the general education classes are disproportionately black and Latino. School Board President Zachary DeWolf said the new model will bring the students together and address that division.  

"Seattle Public Schools, in our commitment to our innovative strategic plan, have voted successfully to desegregate a middle school in the Central District," DeWolf said. 

But the proposal drew a big public outcry. Parents of students in accelerated classes spoke out against the plan at several school board meetings, saying it’s unfair for the district to eliminate that option in just one part of the city.

“I think TAF might be potentially an excellent program, but it might not be the right program for everyone,” Jeremy Mazner, a parent of an eighth-grader at Washington, said at a school board meeting earlier this month. “And it’s very hard to call it an experiment when you’re tearing down the cohort model in a way that cannot be rebuilt if that experiment doesn’t pan out the way that you would expect it to.”

Superintendent Denise Juneau and other district leaders sparked a controversy last fall when they said their long-term plan is to largely phase out the use of separate classes for students in the highly capable program across the district in coming years because the program is disproportionately white and has resulted in racially segregated tracks in schools.

That’s a stark reality at Washington Middle School. Black and African-American students make up 22 percent of the school’s total population, but just 3 percent of the highly capable cohort. White students make up 36 percent of the school population and 58 percent of the HCC track. Ten percent of the school’s students are Latino, but they comprise less than 5 percent of the HCC program.

Sherri Kokx, senior advisor to the superintendent, said partnering with TAF to launch the STEM curriculum offers a way to better serve students of color. TAF opened TAF Academy in the Federal Way school district in 2008 and achieved a 95 percent on-time graduation rate, according to Federal Way Public Schools. In 2016, TAF merged with the district’s Saghalie Middle School and now operates TAF@Saghalie.

“This partnership is an opportunity to lift Washington Middle School, which has been struggling, no question about it, and there’s a variety of reasons for its struggle, but we have an opportunity here with a partner willing to do the hard work with us to change that and change outcomes for students at Washington Middle School,” Kokx told the school board.  

But parents of children in the highly capable cohort have said the way to address racial disproportionality in the program is to use better identification methods and universal screening to include more students of color.

Other districts, such as Northshore and Tacoma, have adopted universal screening in recent years. Seattle Public Schools administers a screening test at high-poverty schools, but not districtwide. Students from other schools must sign up for testing on a weekend.

School Board Director Leslie Harris, who along with five other directors voted in favor of the plan, said she was frustrated by the way the district engaged with the community about the agreement.

"Unfortunately, the ramp-up and communication with affected communities, families, potential students, teachers at Washington Middle School and, indeed, taxpayers, was less than (ideal)," she said. "This issue has become extraordinarily polarized, but what remains is all communities disappointed with our communication and timing."

Board Directors Eden Mack and Lisa Rivera-Smith had sponsored an amendment to give incoming sixth-graders in the highly capable program assigned to Washington Middle School a guaranteed spot at another school with a cohort model. But four directors voted against it and the amendment failed.

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.