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What new in SPS HiCap in 2020?


This page includes a summary of where Highly Capable (HiCap, HC) education in Seattle stands in December of 2020. The topic is complex, so there is a lot of information, plus some additional reading at the end. The very brief synopsis is that the way HiCap is served will be changing over the next few years, with a primary focus on making it more equitable. The district is proposing using a combination of methods to replace the current cohort model. These methods show promise, and may be a good direction for the district over all, but continued advocacy will be needed to ensure that they are implemented in a successful way.

If you want to skim this page some suggested discussion points are bolded for your convenience. If you want to reach out to people in the district it is recommended that you contact your own school board director, and that you may additionally want to contact the Advanced Learning office. In some cases you may wish to reach out further, in which case your state representatives and/or OSPI might be appropriate.


A district convened committee, the Advanced Learning Task Force (ALTF) wrapped up work in December of 2019. The ALTF was tasked with evaluating HiCap and making proposals with a goal of making HiCap services more equitable. The Cascadia PTA supported the body of the recommendations that were focused on more equitable identification of highly capable students, and on proving new approaches before removing the supports that are currently in place.  (More background may be found in various places on this PTA website, such as here and here.) In the year since a number of actions have been taken by the district to move forward without obvious adherence to the ALTF recommendations.

One primary influencer moving forward is the Highly Capable and Racial Equity Services Committee (HC-RES). This committee serves as a community feedback forum for future moves by the district. At the most recent meeting it became clear that they would have one approximately two hour block in which to respond to plans for the coming few years in Seattle’s HC services. There is no provision to include feedback from the community at large in this process.

The HC-RES is a group of representatives chosen by the district. It is worth noting that this group does not include formal representation from Cascadia, which is the biggest HC cohort in the city. At the recent meeting significant time was paid on discussing how to elevate the voices of BIPOC members, as is appropriate, but only one tiny mention of listening to Highly Capable members. If you have concerns about whether this is appropriate community involvement, consider reaching out to the school board. One of the primary mandates for our current superintendent is to improve community relations, and it is appropriate to weigh in on whether you feel that this is being accomplished.

The district has worked hard to communicate that HC students are being appropriately served in every school. By sharing this idea they are communicating that the cohort serves no purpose. If you believe that your student was not adequately served in your neighborhood schools, consider sharing those stories.

Updating 2190

It is expected that, during this winter, the SPS school board will vote to amend board policy 2190. This is the board policy that specifies that HiCap identified students be guaranteed access to a cohort of their peers: “Consistent with state law, once services are started, a continuum of services shall be provided to the student, from grade 1-12. A self-contained cohort option is available in grades 1-8.” Board policy 2190 specifically designates an adequate cohort for the purposes of peer learning and social-emotional opportunities.

In the fall of 2019 the board voted to retain policy 2190 because no adequate pathway forward had been defined. Currently, the district is in violation of this guarantee for students attending the TAF program at Washington Middle school. It is expected that the board elected after last fall’s vote will vote to change policy 2190 and specifically remove the cohort language.

We do not expect to be able to prevent this action at this time, however, if you are concerned about the negative impacts of removing access to similarly developing peers, please consider communicating this, and requesting that opportunities are created for this critical peer learning. If you are concerned about whether your student will be guaranteed appropriate course work without a cohort of students all requiring that work, please consider communicating this, and requesting that specific guarantees and structures are put into place to guarantee access to advanced work.  The district views the cohort program as ‘acceleration only’; if your student sees a benefit from the cohort beyond acceleration, please consider asking how that benefit will be supplied without the cohort.

Long term cohort plans

It is anticipated that this winter will see movement on the proposal to phase out the cohort implementation of HC education.  While there has been no formal communication about specific plans, available information suggests that every student who is identified as highly capable will be served in an integrated general education classroom within their geo-zone school.  In the likely proposed timeline a roll up of the cohort will start in 2023, and be complete by 2027.  A massive boundary realignment will take place in 2024 to effectively use classroom space.  This plan also specifies that k-1 will receive tiered services starting in 2021 – if you have an incoming student ask what this will look like in your school.

Left unspecified in the latest proposals is how identification and support will be modified.  While it is largely acknowledged that the current service of the cohort inequitably serves students there are many experts who propose that improving identification will do more to correct the problem than changing the service model.  Identification improvements are essential even when every student is served in the same setting.  And yet, this year, parents will still required to register their student on-line to receive evaluation.  This evaluation gate keeping has been repeatedly called out as one of the greatest barriers to equitable identification.  If you have concerns about the lack of progress towards more equitable identification procedures, please reach out to the school board and the Advanced Learning office.

Replacement programs

Two primary programs are being proposed to ensure that HC students are appropriately served in every school. These programs are Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and School-wide Enrichment Model (SEM). In current communication there has been no mention of how to ensure access to similarly developing peers for social development, nor has there been mention of how to serve the profoundly gifted or twice exceptional students who can not be served in a regular class room. If you have concerns about these holes, please consider expressing them. The ALTF recommended that a reduced cohort be maintained specifically to serve the profoundly gifted and twice exceptional students.

MTSS is a program that is primarily focused on how to provide appropriate supports for a range of students in a single program.  This is a general approach to identify students who need additional support and give some structure for providing that support.  It can be applied in different areas, including both behavioral support and academic support.  While MTSS has been defined to allow differentiation for students who are both below standard and above standard, it is often used primarily as a way to support struggling students.  (Most schools in SPS have a section on MTSS in their Continuous School Improvement Plans (CSIPs); as of last year the majority of these did not address advanced students.  This is true even for Cascadia, which focused on students performing below standard.)  If you are curious how MTSS will be modified from its current implementation to serve HC students, please consider reaching out to the school board and Advanced Learning staff.

Interestingly, MTSS is a system that proposes three fundamental tiers of support.  Tier 1 is delivered within the class room and represents typical performance.  Tier 2 represents students who need some intervention and modification and it delivered in small groups and pull-outs.  Tier 3 represents students who are performing significantly differently than their peers, and is delivered in stand alone systems.  By definition HC students perform significantly differently than their peers, and it is unclear how the MTSS definition supports the district’s move to serve these students within the class room.  If you have questions about this, please raise them to the school board and Advanced Learning staff.

SEM is a model that has been proposed to discover and support different types of gifts within a heterogenous population.  It is recommended by Renzulli (the author of the program) as an enrichment model to help all children develop passion and talent.  In this sense it is a universal design which aims to reach all children and improve the school experience.  SEM, is worth supporting for its own sake.

However, “The Schoolwide Enrichment Model applies the know-how of gifted education to a systematic plan for total school improvement. Based on the belief that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” our goal is to increase challenge levels for all students and to promote an atmosphere of excellence and creativity in which the work of our highest performing students is appreciated and valued. This plan is not intended to replace existing services to students who are identified as gifted according to various state or local criteria. Rather, the model should be viewed as an umbrella under which many different types of enrichment and acceleration services are made available to targeted groups of students, as well as various subgroups of students within a given school or grade level. And the plan purposefully creates specific types of involvement for the entire faculty of a school in order to: (1) utilize the many and varied talents that exist on any faculty, (2) provide a vehicle for the development of the faculty’s gifts and talents, and (3) minimize the “us-and-them” mentality that exist in many places where efforts are not made to create specific vehicles for bridge building between special and regular program personnel. The centerpiece of the model is the development of differentiated learning experiences that take into consideration each student’s abilities, interests, learning styles, and preferred styles of expression.” [1]
In another article we learn that  “Renzulli and Reis are proponents of diversifying gifted programs, not eliminating them. In fact, they believe it’s unreasonable to expect one teacher to teach students at all levels effectively together. “A lot of lower-achieving kids feel even worse about themselves when they’re forced to be in classrooms where the content is consistently above their level,” while the learning needs of higher performing students are regularly ignored, Reis said.” [2]
It is desirable for SPS to provide an implementation of the school-wide enrichment model that is successful, and to that end, there are a number of unanswered questions to be addressed.  If you are interested in this process, please reach out to the school board.
1) Part of the model includes having an expert in every school – is there funding for this specialist to be involved?
2) Another key aspect is the addition of non-traditionally-academic programs such as a photography mini-course. Will teachers be encouraged to take time away from test prep to offer these courses?  Who are the experts who will offer these courses?
3) How does the district plan to ensure that every school has a rich SEM experience, despite community and resource disparities that are apparent today?
4) Of course, many of these types of courses need supplies and funding and expertise. Is there funding to provide these things?
5) With an emphasis on small groups, we need a lower student-teacher ratio. Is there funding for these smaller groups?
6) Will students who need extra support to reach age-level goals (say, with an IEP, or because they came in to the grade behind) still be able to access the enrichment courses?
7) Finally, with all the emphasis on enrichment, we may forget the basics. If you have a student reading four grade levels above their age, how do you plan to accommodate their reading needs in terms of material? How do you accelerate the ELA standards to be more in line with their capacity?
When you have a student who can easily obtain math skills multiple years above their age-level, how do you plan to teach that student? Will you have access to different levels of math? Will these students be required to complete what amounts to busy work before they can move on to enrichment, or can they skip the math they already know?
8) Renzulli recommends compression – are you prepared for a student to compress a year’s worth of math into a month, and then to find appropriate enrichment for them during the remainder of the school year? What is your mechanism for measuring this achievement? Do you have a plan for how to provide them the next level of math?  Will grade-skipping be encouraged?

Middle school & High school

The changes to the elementary program will roll up to the middle school and high school levels over time.  It is already the case that changes have been made to the middle school program – in recent years limitations on math acceleration have been instituted, ELA and History have been integrated (removed from the cohort structure), and discussions have been started about removing the science acceleration.  The enhancement of ELA and History for HC is unclear without the cohort support.

Specifically, in the case of math, current standards allow ONLY the next course in sequence.  For HC cohort students this is two years above grade level.  When the cohort is dismantled there will be no guarantee that any students will be allowed to take math two years ahead.  This, in turn, limits the science acceleration in middle school (which is currently two years to match the math sequence).  There is a cascading effect where math and science in high school will also be capped at a lower level.  This will affect students’ competitiveness in college applications.

Background Reading

If you want to learn more about some of the issues at play, here are some recent articles addressing gifted education.

Seattle Schools want to dismantle its gifted program.  Here is why choice matters.

Black lives matter.  Black minds matter too.

Gifted programs worsen inequality: Here’s what happens when schools try to get rid of them.

Tackling segregation in NYC public schools: Are gifted programs a problem or a solution?

A strategy for overcoming equity issues in gifted programs.

Where to start in move towards diverse gifted education.

Gifted education, done right, benefits Black and Hispanic students.

Eliminating gifted programs increases inequality.

Equity does not mean everyone gets nothing.