New bill in Washington state Legislature would intervene in Seattle’s plan for gifted education reform

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In Washington, state law requires school districts to serve advanced learners, but mostly leaves it up to them to figure out how.

But this week, Washington state senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), introduced a bill that would attach legal strings to one method school districts use to offer gifted education — in separate classrooms, away from other students. He said plans to reform the way advanced learning is offered his home school district, Seattle Public Schools, prompted him to act.

Senate Bill 6282 requires school districts to develop individual learning plans for every gifted student before phasing out separate classes for gifted learners. Including Pedersen, 10 of out 11 members of the Senate’s education committee have co-sponsored the measure. If passed, it would affect Seattle’s controversial proposal to end segregated learning environments for advanced learners.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said in a statement sent by her spokesman that she was “deeply disappointed” by the bill and “believes it represents the state reaching into decisions that are best made at the local district level.”

The debate over the school district’s proposal to end its Highly Capable Cohort program (HCC), which administrators argue has created a legacy of racially segregated classrooms in the network of schools that host HCC students, has raged since the beginning of the school year. School Board officials rejected that proposal last September. Some modified version of the plan is expected to resurface this spring.

While state law requires school districts to identify and serve advanced learners, it doesn’t mandate any specific delivery model. The district has proposed switching to a model where advanced learning is offered at all schools. If the bill is enacted, SPS would have to work with parents and guardians to create a plan for each student moving out of a self-contained classroom describing how they’ll receive “accelerated learning and enhanced instruction,” the bill states.

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Emerson Elementary School teacher Vanessa Meraki said she likes the idea of more individual learning plans, which are legally binding documents that are typically used to outline services and learning goals for special education students. But she added she has reservations about who would get them under Pedersen’s bill, and that not all HCC kids need them.

“It looks like the way the bill is written, it protects the privilege of those who are already identified” as gifted, said Meraki, who served on the district’s advanced learning task force, which delivered its recommendations last month.

Pedersen said he was initially indifferent about the district’s idea to change its delivery model, but was “stunned” at the district’s more immediate plan to replace the cohort classes with a STEM program at Washington Middle School. Washington, located in the Central District, is the only middle school that services HCC students living in the South End, the city’s most racially and economically diverse region. He said he was concerned the new model would not meet HCC students’ needs.

Under the district’s proposal, only HCC students starting sixth grade at the school next fall would be outside the cohort setting. Current HCC students would not be affected. The School Board votes on the measure next week.

“This bill is not meant to say ‘do or don’t do the cohort,’” said Pedersen, who has two sons in the HCC program at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, which feeds into Washington Middle. “But if you’re going to change mid-stream … you do have a responsibility” to address those students’ needs.

His sentiments echo those of parents who filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office last month, which in part claims the district’s plan to phase out the cohort at Washington Middle would disproportionately restrict access to HCC for gifted students of color. The complaint is still under review.

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“The appearance is that you’re going to take something away from the South End again. If you’re going to phase out the cohort, why not do it throughout the city?” said Chun Ng, an attorney and parent who co-signed the complaint. 

Washington Middle’s HCC program is somewhat more diverse than those at other schools, according to district data. Close to 60% of HCC students at Washington Middle are white and 3% are Black. Eighty percent of white students at the school are in HCC. Districtwide, HCC students are about 66% white and 2% Black.

Last month, school district officials said they picked the school for a partnership with the STEM nonprofit Technology Access Foundation (TAF) because outcomes for Black students, a group the district pledged to prioritize, lagged behind those of Black students in other middle schools. Some HCC advocates say they support TAF coming to the school, but not if it requires dissolving the cohort.

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