by Jasmine M. Pulido
In this first of a three-part series, Jasmine M. Pulido explores Seattle Public School District’s programs for children designated as gifted.
As of May 10, 2021, my 8-year-old daughter became eligible for the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). This feels unsettling considering that a week prior an article by Seattle’s NAACP Youth Council came out demanding dismantling of the program citing it as racist, segregated, and grossly inequitable.
They’re not the only ones. In 2019 former Garfield High School student Azure Savage, in their book, You Failed Us: Students of Color Talk Seattle Schools, called out the Seattle Public School District (SPS) for its racist practices, including preferential treatment by teachers, racially segregated classrooms, and discipline practices disproportionately applied based on race. Savage goes into great detail to break down their personal experiences from elementary through high school in HCC, interspersing their narrative with quotes from other SPS students of color. Nationwide, the debate about programs like HCC has been under intense criticism, especially in the last couple years, for the exact reasons Savage and the NAACP Youth Council have so clearly outlined in their writing.
As a former student of this same national program, portions of Savage’s text like, “When I look around the classroom and see that I’m the only student of color there, it’s common for me to not try as hard because the possibility of succeeding seems slim,” reminded me of what it was like to be the only student of color in my “seminar” classes. At almost 40 years old, I’m still trying to internally dismantle the ways achieving has been tied to my self-worth.
In Washington, HCC is Seattle’s version of “gifted education.” In other states, “gifted education” has been called GATE, TAG, or G/T education. These gifted education programs were designed with specific practices to identify students deemed extraordinarily brilliant compared to their grade-level peers. Gifted education, along with programs and services like Mandarin-immersion, performing arts schools, and magnet schools were all created to entice white families to stay in the city by promising benefits to white children, thereby preventing white flight into the suburbs, while using coded language to describe it. However, if you look at the resulting racial demographics from any of these programs, you clearly see who they catered to — white students.
Within HCC, this second wave effort in maintaining school desegregation has resulted in integrated buildings but segregated classrooms. At some schools you can walk down the hallway and peer into racially identifiable classrooms. That is, you can tell which is an advanced classroom (white, Asian, and biracial white/Asian students) and which is general education (Black, Latinx, Indigenous) based on the racial demographics of its students. Thurgood Marshall Elementary is a global-majority school that actually lost over $200,000 in Title 1 funding to support low-income Black/Brown students in its general education program a few years ago because of the influx of white students into an HCC program SPS relocated there. They’ve regained funding recently; however, this modern-day, small-scale example shows the monstrosity of how devastating the impact of whiteness can be and the way it so brutally continues to colonize BIPOC spaces.
So why would any parent still want to put their Child of Color in this program?!
That’s exactly the question I needed to answer for myself, and it required interrogating my own potential complicity as an Asian American who benefits from proximity to whiteness. Was putting my Child of Color into this program supporting an atrociously inequitable system for my own individual child’s benefit?
‘You Have to Do What’s Best For Your Child’
The first response I got repeatedly from parents, friends, and even educators, was the consoling sentiment, “You have to do what’s best for your own kid.” This argument has never sat well with me. Isn’t that what white parents have said for generations to let themselves off the hook for their own accumulating contributions to inequity? I despised the ravenous resource-hoarding I observed in white parents in my own North Seattle community, most especially those who co-opted racial justice terminology and sat on equity committees to alleviate their own white guilt.
What doesn’t get pointed out in SPS’ statistical racial analyses of HCC is that white students are overrepresented by 17.6% and Asian Americans are actually accurately represented in the HCC program when compared to the district’s overall student enrollment. The only non-white racial demographic that is overly-represented (by only 4%) is “Multiracial” which, most of the HCC parents I talked to told me, were mostly students with a mix of white and Asian heritage. To add complexity, the monolithic racial demographic “Asian American” doesn’t clarify that East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) make up most of this statistic, not Southeast Asian students like my child. Depending on how you interpret the statistic, my child is either over-represented (compared to other BIPOC students), accurately represented (compared to SPS enrollment), or under-represented (compared to other Asian groups).
Getting into HCC originally required a referral either by a student’s teacher or by a parent. The referred student then had to take standardized tests which determines their acceptance into the program. Every step of this identification process was laden with barriers for BIPOC families. Out of 10 parents of color I interviewed, every single parent except one (who was referred by the school) only knew about this exclusive program because a white parent encouraged them to get their child tested. Standardized testing itself is birthed from racist beginnings, disadvantages English language learners, and has been long criticized for cultural bias. To get their child tested, parents had to bring them to an unfamiliar testing site on a Saturday, which necessitated access to transportation and a flexible schedule. Lastly, there are tutors and practice tests available to prep students for these tests if you have the economic privilege to pay for them. A referred student can take the test every year, even if they failed tests in previous year(s), if they have a parent who advocates for their testing. The resulting racial demographic statistics show all of these factors favor the admittance of white students or children of vocal, privileged white parents who mostly are still white students.
With all these hoops to jump through just to enter the program, what services do the children actually receive once they are in the program? Why is this program so coveted by white parents at the expense of BIPOC students? We’ll explore those questions in Part 2 of this series.
Jasmine M. Pulido (she/her/siya) is a Filipina American writer-activist and small business owner living in Seattle. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Social Change.
🎨 Featured illustration by Jiéyì 杰意 Ludden.
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