Illustration depicting a female-presenting student of color walking into a classroom door with a blue backpack. Blue lockers and a bulletin board hang to the right of the student.

My Child of Color Is ‘Highly Capable.’ Now What? — Part 3

by Jasmine M. Pulido

In this final article of a three-part series, Jasmine M. Pulido explores the future of programs for students designated highly capable in Seattle Public Schools.

The Future of Highly Capable Cohort: From HCC to HCS

Highly capable services are deemed part of basic education by state law, but the cohort is not. Starting in the 2022–2023 school year, the district’s Advanced Learning Department will begin a six-year plan to phase out the cohort model while gradually phasing in a new model. The recently amended changes to School Board Policy 2190, “Highly Capable Services and Advanced Learning Programs,” convert this accelerated curriculum cohort model (HCC) into an inclusive and accessible service model (Highly Capable Services or HCS) to meet the needs of students at their neighborhood school. In other words, SPS will no longer focus on searching for and separating “gifted students” from the general student population and will, instead, focus on having flexible services available to all students. HCS will still include an accelerated curriculum but can also include services like enriched learning opportunities, classroom pullouts for advanced content on a specific subject, and cluster groups depending on what best meets the individual student’s needs. In short, Highly Capable Cohort as a self-contained setting for advanced students will be completely dismantled and phased out.

Timeline depicting the possible elementary implementation, where the Highly Capable Cohort program would be dismantled and phased out. Sourced from Seattle Public Schools.

In 2018, the Advanced Learning Taskforce (ALTF) convened for 18 months to provide detailed recommendations for HCS. After ALTF ended, Highly Capable Racial Equity Services Advisory (HC/RESA) was created to oversee the new framework and policy updates through a racial equity lens. This summer, five subcommittees, supported by Professor Kristina Collins, Ph.D., talent development and gifted researcher, will come together to design and finalize components of the delivery framework. On top of basic education funding, the district will continue to receive an additional 5% funding allocation for HCS based on full-time enrollment numbers. 

Student needs can only be met if teachers are given the professional development necessary to make the shift sustainable, so the slower pace allows for teachers to support the shift. Claudine Berry, advanced learning department manager, said, “It’s going to feel too slow for those people that really feel like we need to just eliminate the cohort program. But as we were looking at designing this new system, we knew that we had to support teachers.” 

The rollout does provide a “stipend funded enrichment teacher” in each neighborhood school to provide HC support for grade-level teachers. Berry continued, “And we didn’t want to hurt the kids in the system and say, ‘Well, you’ve been accelerated now you’re going to go back to a neighborhood school, a more differentiated model.’” Dr. Conception Pedroza, SPS’s new associate superintendent, added, “I also think it’s important that, as we begin to build, … we also have time to actually make some changes if we’re finding that we’re not getting the results that we want.”

This systemic shift centers on using a process called differentiation in the general education curriculum using Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) as its framework. Both HCS and AL will be upper tiers in the MTSS model. HC designation is still required by state law. However, SPS’s amended policy will ensure the designation will no longer serve as a barrier for historically marginalized students (BIPOC, low-income, ELL, students with disabilities) seeking HC services in Seattle schools.

Flow chart depicting the process the Advanced Learning Department will implement for the Advanced Learning Service Delivery Framework. Sourced from the SPS Advanced Learning Department.

Despite the intentional push for thorough community input, the fancy committee/subcommittee names, seemingly meticulous planning and methodical bureaucratic processes, I’m still left with considerable skepticism. “I would be completely behind implementing HCC throughout every school year, every course, every grade, if we were to actually take into consideration that historically the school system has failed Black and Brown students. And that part of HCC is not assimilation, but acculturation,” Sharonne Navas, the co-founder and executive director of Equity in Education Coalition told me.

My sentiments exactly. In fact, ALTF is the third iteration of itself with little action coming from previous versions. Considering stories I’ve heard in the pandemic, it’s difficult to trust SPS will fulfill a long list of repeatedly made broken promises to adequately serve Black and Brown students.

“I’m not afraid of the critics,” Pedroza said. “It helps us see things differently. It helps us hear what people are thinking.” As a Latina parent herself, an educator with a Latina/Arab child in AP/College courses, and a district leader whose teaching career started at Thurgood Marshall Elementary (then called Colman Elementary), Pedroza was transparent in telling me SPS needed to get more families of color involved, including bilingual students and those with disabilities, even if it was hard to hear their feedback. “They haven’t really had a voice in this work. Luckily, the Advanced Learning Task Force was probably the exception.” 

Additionally, Pedroza noted vocal white families were a big barrier to families of color having a voice in the conversation. “This is my racial equity truth,” she said. “The white folks need to stop speaking on behalf of the Black and Brown folks.“ Almost every educator I interviewed reiterated this same observation when speaking on racial equity work within SPS.

An interesting shift is happening within the district infrastructure of SPS alongside HCC’s systemic change. After the protests against George Floyd’s murder last summer, several white executives in SPS district-level leadership quit and their replacements have all been BIPOC personnel who were previously leaders in the Department of Racial Equity Advancement (DREA). Among them, Pedroza herself was promoted from chief of student support services to associate superintendent during the writing of this article. “Everyone’s working in alignment, which I think hasn’t really happened before at this level ever in my career that I’ve seen,” Pedroza said. Is there hope here?

Rita Green, education chair of the Seattle/King County NAACP, also approved of the district’s direction. “The key thing they’ll have to watch, even on that, is to make sure that all students are able to participate.” 

One of the five subcommittees is aptly named Support and Accountability. Board Director Liza Rankin’s amendment to Board Policy No. 2190 will also require the superintendent provide a detailed report to the School Board breaking down how neighborhood schools provided HC services, the numbers and demographics of students identified for HC services, and the additional numbers and demographics of students benefiting from/accessing services even if they are not HC identified.

If this shift fails in its execution though, like the many attempts in the past, our most marginalized students will now be without an educational life raft. The only options left would be moving out of the city or going to private school; options only available to those with enough privilege to do so.

And what of students of color, like my child, entering the old HCC model because they missed the cut-off for the new rollout of HCS? On Friday, May 28, 2021, SPS held a virtual “Advanced Learning Department Info Night for Families of Color.” Berry explained how multiple data points were now being used to better identify students of color for the program, with 1,400 students of color becoming eligible out of the 1,600 students who qualified. Having more accurate representation of BIPOC students would certainly be consistent with some of Azure Savage’s recommendations for fixing the program. Other recommendations included employing more teachers of color, culturally responsive curriculum, and introducing processes giving students more power to hold teachers accountable. Those suggestions are needed district-wide, not just in HCC, but they’re going to take a while.

In the meantime, I started looking for BIPOC students’ support groups for my child, like We Lead Us (for elementary and middle school BIPOC support) and Y-We (mentorship for high school girls). The reality for my Child of Color, here in North Seattle, dictates she will need to learn to navigate these white spaces in school whether she joins the cohort or not.

I continue to hold my breath for my child’s educational future, both in HCC and beyond. SPS is the largest school district in the state, surrounded by politically conservative school districts, and literally sits in the middle of an extremely racially segregated city. Colin Pierce, equity advocate and educator, sees the opportunity when perhaps I only see the barriers. “I believe that schools have the power to mitigate and disrupt that. Because schools are also one of the first places that we [engage] in civic activities with one another, and with people who are different from us.” 

Listening to educators, district leaders, and equity advocates talk passionately and fight tirelessly within the system, work that parents like me never see or know, dislodges some of my uncertainty. “If we don’t have the power as educators, as the people who are structuring the experience of young people, if we don’t have the power to start that disruption, then no one does. Then it’s hopeless,” Pierce said.

Navas’ advice has also shined a light through some of my heavy distrust. “I think we often forget that we, regardless of who we are now, are descendants of kings and queens and fighters and warriors. We had educational systems that were excellent before a white, Eurocentric colonization. And we can get to that again,” she said. 

All that being said, a report by the Century Foundation on available research about gifted programs shows, “The common finding across these studies is that a system of sorting and separating students based on academic level is neither necessary nor particularly helpful for supporting gifted and high-achieving students.” However, it goes on to say of one study, “Researchers found that students who participated in the program, both those who were identified as gifted and those who were not, demonstrated significantly higher growth in reading comprehension than students who did not participate.” 

I yearn for a world where all youth are seen, treated, and valued as highly capable without an official title or standardized test to prove it. I hope this is the first step.

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

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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