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Seattle Public Schools says it will no longer offer separate honors classes in middle school

Joe Wolf
Madison Middle School in West Seattle will no longer offer separate Spectrum classes for advanced learners.

Amid a school year marked by controversy over the Seattle district’s plans for its advanced learning programs, officials have announced another change that’s drawing criticism and frustration from parents.

District officials recently sent an email to parents saying Seattle Public Schools will no longer offer separate honors classes, sometimes known as Spectrum classes, in middle school.

This affects students who have been designated through testing as eligible for advanced learning. That’s a designation for students who received high scores on cognitive, math and reading tests, but not quite as high as students admitted into what is called the “highly capable cohort.”

With this move, the district plans to integrate the advanced learning middle school students with their general education peers for language arts and social studies classes. It continues a trend the district began in elementary schools years ago.

Students of color have long been underrepresented in the district's advanced learning programs. Concie Pedroza, the district’s chief of student support services, said it's beneficial to have the students be in class together, especially for subjects such as social studies that include discussions about issues of social justice.

“In a model where kids are in different classrooms with just a similar type of student, you never get that opportunity to really have that broader, richer discussion,” Pedroza said. “And having all the different perspectives from all the kids, it will actually enrich the experiences for all of the kids.”

Pedroza said students will still have the opportunity to take accelerated math and science classes if they can demonstrate they're ready for that, though sixth graders will no longer have the opportunity to take Algebra 1.

She said this is part of a broader effort to make sure schools across the district are operating in similar ways and teaching the same material, which she said “is currently not the case.” That will give parents predictability in case they have to move a child from one school to another.

The highly capable cohort will continue to have separate classes in certain pathway schools next school year, except for Washington Middle School, where the school board approved a new STEM-focused program that will operate integrated classes.

But longer term, the question about the future of a separate highly capable cohort remains up in the air. Superintendent Denise Juneau said last fall that she would like to integrate many of those students into the rest of the student population and continue to serve their needs for challenging coursework by having teachers differentiate instruction within the classroom. She said it’s a way to address racial segregation that’s resulted because the population of the advanced programs is disproportionately white.

Megan Hazen, who has three children in the highly capable cohort, said the letter from the district was confusing and left many parents frustrated.

“One unfortunate thing about what the district is doing is that they’re really unsettling a lot of the population,” she said. “As a result, people don’t know what to do or what to expect. They sent it right at the end of open enrollment, and now we have a lot of parents who are trying to reevaluate where they send their fifth graders next year.”

The district’s open enrollment period, when families can submit choice forms for schools, was originally supposed to end on Feb. 14 but has since been extended until Feb. 21.

Hazen said she’s skeptical that the district will follow through on providing differentiated instruction within classrooms serving a range of student abilities.

“Every experience that people have with the Seattle Public Schools is that they’re not differentiating within one classroom,” she said. “To expect that to magically change by next fall —I don’t know. I don’t think it’s going to work.”

The district plans to require that teachers take professional development training that’s being developed by the advanced learning department, Pedroza said. She said it will focus on how to bring in a high level of academics, how to differentiate instruction and how to teach in a culturally responsive manner.  

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.