Parent Group Pushes Seattle Public Schools To Get More Kids Of Color In Its Gifted Program

Sep 20, 2017

The gifted program in Seattle Public Schools known as the highly capable cohort is dominated by white kids.

White students make up 70 percent of that program, but only 47 percent of the entire district population.

Some Seattle parents with kids in highly capable classes say they’re frustrated by that imbalance, and they’re pushing the district to make changes to make the program less segregated. They want to get the word out to communities of color that this Friday is an important deadline if parents want to get their kids tested.

Andrea Peterman wasn’t really sure she wanted her daughter in the highly capable program because she knew it wasn’t diverse. But her daughter needed a challenge, so she got her tested and enrolled her into Cascadia Elementary, a school for highly capable kids on Seattle’s North side.

“I think in her fifth grade year, there were seven classrooms of fifth graders, and there was one black student. I mean that’s incredible,” Peterman said. “And I think some people will say, `Oh, the North end isn’t very diverse, but it’s completely out of whack with even the demographics of the North end.”

Andrea Peterman at the advanced learning booth at the High Point health fair
Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX

Peterman wanted to change that. So she joined a group of parents from Thurgood Marshall Elementary called Racial Equity in HCC that’s been working to get more kids of color into the program.

Kate Poux is part of that group. She and Peterman came to a recent health fair at the High Point public housing community in West Seattle to hand out flyers in Somali, Amharic, Chinese and other languages about the advanced learning program.

Poux has two kids in highly capable classes – one in middle school and the other at Thurgood Marshall Elementary. She said that because Thurgood Marshall has two tracks, general education and highly capable classes, it’s impossible to ignore the fact the kids split along racial lines.

“You walk down the halls and you see kids of all different colors, all different backgrounds, and then they separate and they go into their separate classrooms,” she said. “My daughter was in the second grade when she entered that program and she would come home after school and ask, `Why? Why is it like that? Why aren’t there any black or brown kids in my class?’”

Poux said she didn’t have a good answer for her daughter, so she and other parents have been pushing the district to make the program more diverse.

Word Of Mouth

Other groups are also working on this issue, including the Seattle Education Association. Marquita Prinzing is the project coordinator of the union’s new Center for Race and Equity.

“The thing is a lot of this information gets shared word of mouth,” Prinzing said.

If you’re in a social circle that really cares about getting into advanced learning programs, you hear about it.

“And if it’s mostly white people, then they’re talking to mostly white people, then mostly white people get access to the programs, not because anything sneaky or tricky is going on, but just because that’s who’s getting the information,” Prinzing said.

In some white social circles, for example, it’s common knowledge that you can pay a private evaluator hundreds of dollars to administer another test if your kid doesn’t score high enough initially. Then you can use that to try to get your child in through the appeals process. The district offers that service to low-income families for free but only a handful take advantage of it.

Prinzing said she’s also worried the tests are too narrow and make it hard for English language learners to get into the HCC program.

“Do we value a child who’s an immigrant and has learned English in six months and is now doing really well with social English?” she said. “Or are we still saying, `Oh, they’re ELL, so it’s really unlikely they’re HCC because they haven’t got academic language yet.'”

Seattle School Board Director Stephan Blanford said he would like to see the district do more to achieve diversity. And he said integrating the gifted classes would benefit white students as well. 

"One of the things that our CEOs, when they talk to us about the types of students that they want to employ, they talk frequently about people who can work across difference, who understand people who are not like them," he said. "And if we have homogenous schools and homogenous classrooms, then we’re not producing the types of students who can take those types of jobs.”

What The District’s Doing

District administrators say they want to make the program more diverse and have been taking action.

“The changes have been occurring over time as the team’s been exploring a variety of different ways to address the underrepresentation,” said Kari Hanson, director of student support services for Seattle Public Schools.

For example, she said the district is giving teachers more training so they can spot kids who might qualify for advanced learning.

“If I’m a teacher and I’m working with a diverse group of students, do I know how to recognize potential giftedness?” she said.

And, in the past few years, the district has started giving a screening test to second graders in schools with a large low-income population. This past spring, the district gave the follow-up exam during the school day instead of having kids come to a testing site in the summer.

But the Tacoma and Highline school districts go a step farther. Tacoma screens all second graders, and Highline screens first and second graders.

Seattle officials said that’s cost-prohibitive, but they are trying to reach more underrepresented families – for example, by coming to the health fair in West Seattle.

A Candidate For The Highly Capable Cohort?

Next to the advanced learning booth at the fair, a woman from Seattle’s Parks and Recreation department coaxed kids to play a gigantic game of chess. One eight-year-old girl named Mouna, from a Somali family, took up the challenge.

Meanwhile, her mom, Madina, chatted with Stephen Martin, the district’s supervisor of highly capable services and advanced learning programs. This is the first year Martin has visited fairs like this one to explain the system to families.

He walked Madina through the process of signing her kids up for testing.

Eight-year-old Mouna said she likes to read chapter books and wants to be a doctor.
Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX

“Do you have a Source account?” he asked. “Do you know what that is?”

“No,” she answered.

As he tried to explain how to sign up for the Source, the district’s online system, her five kids surrounded her, tugging on her dress. He tried to explain how to get a password, but the kids soon drowned him out with their clamoring.

“Oh my goodness, what a beautiful family,” he said.

It’s clear that this busy immigrant mom who said she values education faces a tough time figuring out how to sign her daughter up to get tested. She’s never even heard of the advanced learning program.

But Mouna could be a good candidate. She loves to read and as the oldest, often reads to her younger siblings.

“We have a lot of books in our house,” she said. “Sometimes I borrow books from the library, chapter books, and I read to them.”

Mouna likes the Magic Treehouse books and wants to be a doctor, but she comes from a family that’s not plugged into how to get into special programs like advanced learning. And that is the challenge the district faces as it tries to make the program less segregated.