by Jasmine M. Pulido
In this second of a three-part series, Jasmine M. Pulido explores how Seattle Public School District’s Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) program works.
The HCC designation puts children on a track, or “HC pathway,” starting as early as kindergarten. In elementary school, HC-eligible children can either stay at their neighborhood school or move to an HC Pathway School. There are two types of HC Pathway Schools: self-contained schools, entirely dedicated to the HCC program, or self-contained classrooms offering advanced content within a general education program.
School-wide cohorts disappear, but self-contained classrooms with accelerated content are still available in HC Pathway middle schools. In high school, the term HCC no longer applies and advanced classes, like Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, become available to anyone interested in taking them. Azure Savage, however, explains HC students are more likely, more academically prepared, and more encouraged to take AP/IB classes. Reby Parsley, board director of the Washington Association for the Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) and a gifted program specialist, also saw this in the research on gifted education. “What we’re finding is that when you provide students opportunity for access to those types of services at an early age, that’s when it has the most impact,” she said.
In each of these options, HCC simply offers accelerated curriculum in math and English language arts. “The teachers are not trained differently,” SPS District 1 School Board Director Liza Rankin explained. “[HCC] is not a different curriculum to engage different ways of thinking. It’s literally just two years (grade levels) ahead in reading, one year (grade level) ahead in math, of the adopted general education curriculum for the district.” There’s a lot of confusion among parents about this fact. Some schools or classroom teachers do go beyond the accelerated curriculum to offer more enriched learning opportunities. The difference stems from the individual school or teacher rather than the HCC program.
Some neighborhood schools offer HC support in their building and don’t require a move to an HC pathway school. Advanced Learning (AL), which is a tier down from HCC but one grade level above the general education curriculum, is supposed to be offered at all neighborhood schools but, according to SPS parents, is disproportionately applied. Both HCC and AL are accelerated curriculum offerings from the district’s Advanced Learning Department, but AL has all but disappeared as a district-supported program and HC support is only available in a few Seattle schools.
Murkiness about these specific offerings also comes from the fact there previously was no standardization or accountability across the district about how HC/AL served its designated students. This could partially be explained by the district’s history. In the 1990s, SPS Superintendent John Stanford encouraged neighborhood schools to adopt a site-based management (SBM) approach, granting principals the power to craft their building’s educational landscape to meet the perceived needs of its students. It also meant, at some schools, few resources were given to advanced learning if only a few students needed it. Some parents interviewed for this article reported their school’s staff told them the school didn’t really offer HC support because, as a Title I school, most of its resources were diverted to Special Education, the building’s higher priority.
Here is where it gets really hairy.
According to Rankin, the reason many, mostly white, parents were interested in HCC was to find options outside of basic education because their child was unhappy and/or frustrated in school. For white students, any disruptive or destructive classroom behavior born from boredom was commonly interpreted by teachers as the student potentially being brilliant. Due to implicit bias harbored by teachers, however, if a child is Black, Latino/Latina, or Indigenous, these same behaviors were more likely to be perceived as defiant, disrespectful, noncompliant, or even dangerous. More often than not, these perceptions lead to disciplinary action which then funnels students of color into the school-to-prison pipeline.
My own Filipino American husband is a testament to boredom leading to the label of troublemaker. Fortunately, he was identified early for gifted programs and given access to a more challenging curriculum. His destructive behaviors completely stopped, and he became a high-achieving student. But what would have happened if he were Black, Latino/Latina, or Indigenous in the same setting? Would anyone ever have tried to identify his unmet needs, or would he have been dismissed as defiant?
This situation gets even more complicated if a student is identified as twice-exceptional, otherwise referred to as a “2e kid.” Twice-exceptional kids are students who thrive with HC services but are also identified as having a learning disability. According to the Child Mind Institute, the child’s learning disability can make it difficult to identify them for HCC. Black, Latino/Latina, or Indigenous students are more likely to be identified for their learning disability, not for their need for HC services. For example, in 2018, Black male students made up 23% of special education students but only 3% of HC students while they made up 7% of district enrollment. Let’s also remember their learning disability makes them more likely to be in completely self-contained settings allowing for excessive restraint and discipline which, in turn, makes them more susceptible to entering the school-to-prison pipeline.
What happens if a Black, Latino/Latina, or Indigenous 2e student is frustrated, bored, or unhappy at a Title I (low-income) school in South Seattle? The HC-designation becomes vitally important, a life raft out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Moving to an HCC school becomes the only solution available to get the child’s needs met on both ends of the learning spectrum when the neighborhood school is ill-equipped to do so. For some parents of color, an HC-designation is the only way teachers will potentially value their Child of Color and treat them better within a structurally racist school system.
This is why a parent would want their Child of Color to be in HCC.
There are other possible reasons a parent of color might want their child to be HC-designated, like implied status, moral superiority, and additional resources. Those weren’t the ones I was interested in. I’m most curious about what’s at stake for the students we call “furthest from educational justice” and how their academic fate relates to HCC.
According to Savage though, once a Black or Brown student entered HCC, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. While it was a life raft out of the school-to-prison pipeline, it came at an expensive cost to a student of color’s mental and emotional well-being. Considering the options, “you failed us” indeed seems an accurate response.
In Part 3 of this series, we will explore the future of programs for students designated highly capable in Seattle Public Schools.
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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