Photo of classroom filled with empty chairs and desks save for one student whose back is to the camera.

Why the NAACP Youth Council Is Demanding the Dismantling of HCC

by Nhi Tran, Foziya Reshid, Thao-Mi Le

Advanced learning programs first made an appearance in Seattle schools during the 1960s with the adoption of the “Policy for the Education of Able Learners.” The program was created with the intent of providing every student with an education that would “challenge [their] maximum ability and meet [their] individual needs.” However, after introducing school busing in the 1970s, the district used this program as an incentive to keep white parents who opposed racial integration from pulling their children out of Seattle schools. This program provided select white students with an education separate from their Black and Brown peers, perpetuating a segregated school system. 

Throughout Washington state, schools are required to provide “highly capable programs” for students they deem “gifted.” The state defines gifted as “students who perform or show potential for performing at significantly advanced academic levels when compared with others of their age, experiences, or environments.” The state allocates funds for each school district and, in return, school districts must abide by the state Legislature’s policies regarding basic education, which were redefined in 2011 to include programs for highly capable students. However, as you will see, these programs are built upon a foundation of white supremacy and constructed with the intent to perpetuate the segregation of schools on the basis of race and socioeconomic status. 

In the case of Seattle Public Schools (SPS), the state-required program takes the form of the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). HCC is highlighted by SPS as a program intended to provide highly capable students with an education that meets their unique needs. However, in reality, the HCC model segregates schools and predisposes those apart and outside of the program to mental health issues and negative ideals. Not only that, it reinforces an imbalanced social structure by excluding BIPOC students and low-income students. When we conducted a student survey asking about HCC, students within and outside of the program found the socioeconomic disparities between general education (Gen-ed) and HCC classes to be significant. HCC vows to “deliver a comprehensive and equitable education” yet the results of our research show it fails to uphold its promise. 

According to the information provided by SPS, for students to get into the HCC program they must take a multitude of tests, beginning with the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), on which they must score within the 94th percentile to advance to the next phase and take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills assessment (ITBS). However, these standardized tests have already been proven to cater to wealthy students who have access to resources that their underprivileged peers do not. Courses and practice tests available for students to prepare are expensive and not accessible to those who are unable to afford them, creating a biased admission process in favor of affluent students. Rather than testing students to see if they need a more rigorous learning curriculum, the process tests wealth and segregates students accordingly. 

A former HCC student expressed the inequities they observed regarding testing for the program. They experienced the “sheer lack of accessibility and modifications to tests … [and how it] creates huge social divides and shows the sheer classism present in [the] system.” The student also explained how a lot of their friends in Gen-ed courses told them they were not given the opportunity to take the tests for HCC until fifth grade, while they took the test in first grade. In reality, this program separates students of affluence from their less-privileged peers and allows them to receive an education that is far superior to others attending the same school. This socioeconomic issue rooted in HCC is ultimately a racial issue as the link between race and socioeconomic status has been woven into the fabric of our country.

Table depicting the current HCC eligible students and district enrollment by race for 2020–2021.
Table depicting the current HCC eligible students and district enrollment by race for 2020–2021. Demographics provided by SPS (October 2020).

The HCC program “continues to create a bubble of higher education that excludes a whole group of capable [kids],” says an SPS student who experienced the discriminatory practices of the program firsthand. According to a former HCC teacher, students within the program are afforded more resources and prioritized above general education classes. Furthermore, within the program, students deemed highly capable are often treated by staff in a manner that implicitly tells them they are special. This prioritization and special treatment creates and further feeds into a sense of superiority HCC students feel over their non-HCC peers. Ultimately, this contributes to the inherent and already present isolationism of the program by placing HCC students on a pedestal, making them unable to relate to their peers. 

Furthermore, this environment allows students to be under the illusion that consequences do not apply to HCC participants. One student said, “HCC kids always made it their business to let non-HCC kids know that they were [at] a higher level.” In many cases like this, students get away with voicing their negative opinions of non-HCC students, some of which are degrading and racist. One HCC student wrote, “these [racial] divides prevented [them] from hearing diverse perspectives and opinions,” and also “prevented [their BIPOC peers] from being able to share those opinions.” They conclude the HCC program “ultimately [creates] social divides through silencing the voices of POC students.” In general, entering society after having been in a bubble that enables and promotes this behavior leaves these highly capable individuals unaware of real-world repercussions and with a lack of empathy for the struggles of people who do not look like them, all because they were sheltered from confrontation and the experiences of their BIPOC peers. 

Everyone searches for a sense of camaraderie and belonging wherever they go, especially in adolescence when insecurities are at their peak. Within the HCC program, BIPOC students are met with an incredibly isolating atmosphere, as they are placed into an environment dominated by white students. One student described their experience within the program as being “out of place in a sea of white people,” due to the segregation and isolation HCC created. In their book You Failed Us, former HCC student Azure Savage expresses how students ultimately look to peers most like themselves for “more than having someone to laugh with during class.” What they seek is, rather, “the advantage of having someone to ask for help on homework, to study for the test with, to stand up for [them], to confront the racist teacher with.”

Students outside the program are led to believe they are somehow inferior to their HCC peers. Teachers often treat non-HCC classes and students as the “regular” class, sometimes even referring to them as “difficult” students. All the while these students are hearing their teachers comment on how nice and manageable HCC students are, or how successful they are. It is damaging to hear comparisons pitting students against one another based on supposed superior academic performance. This, in turn, allows the so-called “better” students to be made to believe they need to be separated from others who are “less.” With HCC having a disproportionately white majority and Gen-ed classes having a greater BIPOC demographic, this treatment is problematic as it fuels and reinforces racist ideologies.

Among educators, HCC classes are often labeled as easier to teach and used as an incentive to encourage them to continue working until they are offered a position within the advanced learning program. In other words, an easier job. This cycle of “sticking it out” only contributes to the idea that HCC students are better. 

Many BIPOC parents see HCC as an opportunity for their children to stand out in schools. Teachers and their biases have failed BIPOC students time and time again, so their parents now see HCC as a way out or a guarantee that their child is getting the best education possible. As a result, whenever moves are made to abolish HCC, BIPOC parents along with white parents view this as an opportunity being taken away from their kids. Parents, especially BIPOC parents, have been manipulated into believing that HCC is the only way for their child to succeed when in reality, schools are just not doing their job in catering to the needs of their students equitably. 

As students who are striving for successful futures, we understand the desire for challenging curriculums that will enhance college applications as well as set us ahead. The HCC program provided many the opportunity to pursue a path giving them these advantages. While it may seem beneficial, the current HCC model was founded to uplift white children and keep their parents comfortable. The program has not strayed from its roots. The advantages these privileged children are given in the program are outweighed by the detriments to their character and the putting down of those outside of the program. Students should not have to endure racism in an educational institution meant to uplift them in their pursuit of knowledge and success.

We, the NAACP Youth Council, want the HCC program abolished from SPS. Every student deserves an equitable and anti-racist education that recognizes their brilliance. A program built to discriminate against students has no room for fixing. It must be abolished and replaced with a new program that truly provides an equitable education while also acknowledging every student’s needs. It must be replaced with a new, equitable program that allows for students to grow.

On May 5, 2021, the Seattle School Board will hold a meeting in which board members will be voting to rename and amend Board Policy No. 2190, Highly Capable Services and Advanced Learning Programs. The policy change calls for the complete redesign of highly capable services in order to ensure the service SPS provides is equitable. In addition, the policy change would put an end to the segregation that HCC perpetuated.

For instructions on how to sign up to give public testimony at the May 5 Seattle School Board meeting, visit the following SPS “Attend a Board Meeting” webpage.

Nhi Tran is part of the NAACP Youth Council and a high schooler in Puget Sound, Washington. She is passionate about advocating for an equitable education system.

Foziya Reshid is part of the NAACP Youth Council and a high schooler in Puget Sound, Washington. She is passionate about community service and advocacy for marginalized groups.

Thao-Mi Le is part of the NAACP Youth Council and a high schooler in Puget Sound, Washington. Thao-Mi is passionate about racial justice and service work.

📸 Featured image attributed to Chen Guang (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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