Advanced learning

Seattle’s advanced learning program saved me – fix it, don’t mess it up

I am a 2018 graduate of Seattle Public Schools and an alumnus of the Highly Capable Cohort. I recognize the many problems with the current model of advanced education in the district. But dismantling the Highly Capable Cohort program is not the solution.

For the background: I was the kid who read “Harry Potter” in kindergarten. In second grade, I was so early that my teacher sent me to help out in the school cafeteria to keep me busy. My only educational supplement was a fourth grade math book that I was too intimidated to tackle on my own. I wasn’t just a “smart kid”; I was isolated, beyond what my classmates could understand. Entering the Highly Capable Cohort program in third year was the breath of fresh air I never knew I was missing. School no longer looked like an avalanche of disconcertingly easy work and classmates despising me for an intelligence I could neither explain nor justify. For the first time, I didn’t feel guilty for being smart. For the first time, I had friends at school.

There is a perception that advanced learners get something ‘extra’ in their self-contained classrooms, but HCC is a service, like any other form of special education. The cohort model provides the same teachers, buildings, and resources as the rest of SPS. The program is simply delivered at an accelerated pace. Perhaps more importantly, the HCC is a social environment where intelligence is celebrated, where students like me who might otherwise have been considered “nerds” or “weirdos” can find their place and their people.

Article 9, Section 1 of our Washington State Constitution states: “It is the primary duty of the state to make sufficient provision for the education of all children … without distinction or preference because of race, color, caste or sex. Seattle’s advanced learning system is down. Currently, this system perpetuates institutional racism, and does not serve all students without distinction. We need to find ways to expand opportunities and access. But access will not come from denying all students an educational lifeline because the current structure is not perfect.

Eliminating Seattle’s cohort model from advanced learning programs will not eliminate advanced learners. The district has already attempted advanced learning specific to the neighborhood school with advanced learning opportunities. This program was unregulated and site specific and completely ineffective. Few, if any, teachers have the time, resources, or motivation to teach successfully on a five-level bell-shaped aptitude curve. Without teachers and staff fully engaged in the Sisyphean task of differentiated learning in all schools, the system collapses.

Dismantling the HCC without a detailed plan for an alternative program is not beneficial to anyone. General education students won’t benefit from a few new kids who are bored in class, especially if time and resources are diverted in trying to enforce site-based acceleration. Advanced learners will not benefit from faltering and timid attempts at differentiated classes and will certainly suffer from the loss of a cohort where they can be themselves. What Seattle Public Schools need is a way to expand knowledge and access to advanced learning programs so that all students, regardless of background, can be served.

‘My opinion’

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A first step is the universal giftedness test, which does not currently exist in our district. Another is to make the HCC an opt-out program, automatically enrolling all qualified students to ensure they don’t miss out on services due to a lack of information or difficulty navigating the complex logistics of the district. Another solution is a sliding scale for HCC admission based on race or socioeconomic status, a system reported by the Seattle Times that has succeeded in Miami in dramatically expanding access to advanced learning for students of color, low-income students and English learners. An extreme solution might even be to remove the threshold that causes access problems: make HCC a stand-alone options program accessible to all students.

There are many solutions outside of eradication – costly, yes, requiring effort, it is true – but with alternatives available, why choose to cut the opportunities for excellence for all students?

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