By Vivian van Gelder and Bao Ng
Overcoming their usual reluctance to interfere with local control of public education, State legislators recently put forward a bill that would place significant obstacles in the way of desegregating Seattle Public Schools’ self-contained Highly Capable Cohort program. That program, in which white and affluent students are dramatically overrepresented, is the descendant of “gifted” programs originally created to stem white flight from Seattle Public Schools (SPS) during the busing era of the 1980s.
Recent moves by district administration and the School Board have placed its long-term future in doubt, with proposals under consideration to phase out the self-contained program over a period of six years and serve most students in their neighborhood schools instead.
Currently, white and multiracial students make up 81% of program enrollment, despite constituting only 59% of all SPS students, while students of color “furthest from educational justice” (Hispanic/Latinx, Black, Pacific Islander and Native students) are disproportionately underrepresented. While advocates of the cohort model argue better testing will create a demographically representative cohort, there is growing evidence from across the country that universal testing, while a step in the right direction, is by no means a magic bullet. Financial constraints and entrenched institutional racism guarantee students of color will continue to be passed over for admission to the highly capable cohort at far higher rates than their white counterparts.
In the meantime, despite recent improvements in the identification process, the current segregated model forces those underrepresented students of color who are identified for advanced learning to choose between receiving services in a mostly white environment, or remaining in schools that are more likely to provide them with culturally responsive education (known to be a key factor in ensuring educational success for students of color). As Garfield High student Azure Savage observed in his recent book, You Failed Us: Students of Color Talk Seattle Schools: “in exchange for a good education and a higher chance of getting into college, [these students] give up their support system and isolate themselves from students who look like them.” This is a choice that is not required of white students.
There are additional compelling reasons for moving away from a segregated cohort model for advanced learning, but State Senators, including one whose children are enrolled in the program, have created a plan that appears designed specifically to impede progress toward that goal. Senate Bill 6282, introduced on January 14, 2020, would require any district that proposes to move from a cohort to a non-cohort model of delivering advanced learning services to provide each student moved out of a cohort program with an “individualized highly capable learning plan,” analogous to the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) required by federal law for students receiving Special Education services. Currently, the bill would provide no additional funds to districts for this inevitably resource-intensive process – creating a major barrier to moving away from a cohort model and ensuring that this segregated program continues for the near future.
At a hearing on SB 6282 on January 22, 2020, senators on the (apparently all-white) Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee defended the Bill by arguing segregated education is the most “effective and economically efficient” way to serve highly capable students. However, as SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau pointed out in her testimony, statistics show that the difference in outcomes for students in the cohort is not significantly better than for students identified as highly capable but who are being served in their neighborhood schools. There is currently no compelling evidence that advanced learners cannot be well served in a general education environment (and indeed, senators at the hearing did not offer any).
There’s little doubt some additional resources will be required if the cohort model is wound down and most students identified as highly capable are served in their neighborhood schools. Students who have until now been educated exclusively in segregated environments will need assistance to reintegrate into mainstream schools. Those students have missed out on the opportunity to develop many fundamental 21st century skills, among them the ability to function in an authentic and diverse community, and the ability to understand and interact with others who may not share their background. Teachers, too, will likely need supportive professional development to help them expand their ability to successfully differentiate instruction for all learners. However, the Bill as currently drafted would require SPS to deploy significant additional resources exclusively for the benefit of those currently in the cohort, effectively at the expense of students furthest from educational justice.
This is not surprising, since many of the senators who introduced the Bill appear to believe that racial equity is a zero-sum game. During the hearing, for example, sponsoring Senator Jamie Pedersen (D, 43rd District, and a parent of students currently enrolled in the cohort) stated his “fundamental belief” that it is “unacceptable to force [cohort students] to bear all of the negative externalities of a shift in policy to help other kids, no matter how worthy the other kids are who need to be helped” (emphasis added).
This rhetoric, which has disturbing echoes of the racially motivated “us versus them” ideology that is increasingly seen nationwide, cannot be allowed to determine the terms of the debate over advanced learning in Seattle. Senators urgently need to hear from their constituents that State power should not be brought to bear to maintain racially segregated programs in our public schools.
Contact your legislators and let them know you do not support this bill.
Vivian van Gelder and Bao Ng are parents of students in Seattle Public Schools.