Advanced Learning to Change

 The Seattle School Board and the district are poised to change the Advanced Learning program in a major way. Interestingly, the BAR (Board Action Report) on this change has a fairly bland title - Rename and Amend Highly Capable Services and Advanced Learning.

I am NOT advocating for anyone to write to the Board because this was a done deal a long time ago. 

The district is going to have a new enactment of Highly Capable Services (kicking out the wording “Advanced Learning”) and having “building-based services” in General Education classrooms rather than separate cohort groupings. There may or may not be other eligible students in the class. There is a carve-out for “upper edge” students. (See below.)

To note, the wording “highly capable” comes from the state and it is a state mandate that comes to districts complete with funding for transportation.  

The district plans to enact this new programming over the next six years, to school year 2026-2027. They are currently piloting the program at one elementary school. Students in the current program will stay with their cohort until then 2026-2027. 

The district is paying at least three consultants to plan how to enact the new HCC. 

The district claims that the current program is “inaccessible” without explaining why. In the past, some schools with minority majority populations did NOT encourage those students and their parents to apply. And now, with the linking of test scores to give a grade to schools, there is pressure to keep gifted students at their home schools. 

The district also makes the outlandish claim that the HCC program, by itself, is “central to the systemic racism” in SPS. Please. 

My Take

A change was a long time coming. What I find so amusing is all this teeth-gnashing about the current program when it was created by the district itself and many Boards were fine with it. 

Those of us who wanted change saw incremental, sloth-like change. It was almost as if the district was embarrassed about students who had the academic ability to work faster and farther.  I am NOT negating the different skills that students bring to the classroom; I’m just talking about academics. 

But again, THE district allowed schools to put out Advanced Learning info in whatever form. I know for fact in the late ‘90s that some schools in the southend made the decision to NOT tell parents about the program and NOT put out information at the school. Then, when high-stakes testing came in and schools were being graded for their scores, many schools did NOT want their high-achieving kids to go away. 

And, of course, there is this glossing over of Asians and their numbers in Advanced Learning. I mean that, somehow, they are not minorities when they are in the program. Aren’t we seeing a rise in hostility towards Asians in the U.S. because of COVID insinuations? Yeah, the different Asian countries that have blessed this country with their people- be it India, Thailand, Vietnam, South Pacific, China, Japan, Indonesia - are minorities. 

I do applaud this six-year rollout but I suspect it is more about logistics than trying to ease students from one situation to another. But do I think this will work, providing benefit for all the students in a single Gen Ed classroom? I don’t and I’ll say one word - ALOs. How did that work out? Some schools only had them on paper in their CSIPs; ALOs were never anything genuine and real.

I mean, according to the BAR, the service can vary from school to school. So there will be no way to suss out in a broad way how the program is working. Word will get out which schools take it seriously and those that don’t. 

And the boundaries. And what happens to Cascadia? I think that will be the school for the “leading edge” students. 

Read on.


ALO - Advanced Learning Opportunities, a part of Advanced Learning, enrichment services that were to be available at every school.

AP - Advanced Placement courses. Standalone courses of college-level curriculum available at all SPS comprehensive high schools.

BAR - Board Action Report

HCC - Highly Capable Cohort, the current upper tier program for Advanced Learning

HC - Highly Capable which appears to be the new name for all advanced learning services in SPS

IB - International Baccalaureate program is an international advanced program that starts in junior year of high school with separate courses based on the IB program.  It finishes in senior year with several tests. 

ISLP - Individual Student Learning Plan - a new requirement for students in Tier Three of the new Highly Capable Services plan.

JSCEE - John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, the district’s headquarters south of Sodo

MDC - Multi-Disciplinary Committee at each school

What is Changing?

  • The HC program will start in 2nd grade. In K and 1st grades, schools will be looking at students for a “talent pool” for possible service in Grade 2.  It is unclear if a student has to be in the talent pool to apply for HC. There is also a statement about the MDC that says they will “determine which students would most benefit from HC Services.” It is unclear if this is the “talent pool” mentioned in the BAR. 
  • There will be universal testing at some grade level, probably K or 1st. 
  • There will be NO outside testing allowed EXCEPT for students who are free/reduced lunch, have a documented disability, and students of color. This clearly doesn’t sound legal and the BAR reflects that saying, “to the extent allowable by law.”
  • There will be a process for appeals but it is unclear what that will be.
  • Teacher recommendations and/or report card grades will not be used to screen students but may be used as one of several criteria.
  • It is also stated that “local norms” will be used including a cognitive assessment test or a student portfolio.
  • There will be three tiers to the program. (To note, there were three tiers previously - HCC, Spectrum and ALO.  The district cut out the middle tier, Spectrum,over the last several years and then there is the bottom tier, ALO was an enrichment service to be offered at all schools for any student but was never enforced by the district.) 
  • Tier One is basically an ALO offering for all students.
  • Tier Two is identified HC kids who will stay at their neighborhood school to receive services in their General Education classroom.
  • Tier Three will be students who are “upper-edge” students who may be sent to another school within their region and presumably in a cohort class.  Parents must apply for Tier Two and Tier Three services. 


  • JSCEE and schools will work together to decide the scope of offerings. It will vary from school to school as each school has a school-based Multi-Disciplinary Committee which will decide which offerings to provide.

  • Tier 3 of the program sounds a lot like HCC. Schools with “upper edge” students have “to determine where a student’s needs are not met and cannot, realistically,  be met at a neighborhood school.” Each of those students will have an ISLP - individual student learning plan. 

  • If a student is not meeting their ISLP, there will be an exit process (not yet clarified). 

Currently the program runs like this:

  • Parents or teachers or community can nominate a student they believe will benefit from the program. A child then takes a standardized test via the district at no cost. The test is given in a group on a Saturday. The earliest testing is in kindergarten; there is no HCC in kindergarten.
  • The district says that there are in-class services at every school like additional learning opportunities, project-based learning, flexible grouping, and/or acceleration. There is no standard for this teaching and it varies from class to class, school to school. Which services and how they are delivered are decided by the school. 
  • If the child meets the testing standard, their parent/guardian can then choose to have their student in the program. 
  • For 1-5, eligible students have several choices. One, if their school has the program, they can stay at that school. Two, move to a school linked to the program. Either of those choices means joining a cohort classroom of other identified students. Three, stay at their school for services but not be part of the program.
  • For grades 6-8, there are pathway schools that offer HCC learning  in Language Arts, Social Studies and Math. 
  • For high school, there is no HCC program. HCC 8th grade students are given a pathway high school. There are AP courses available at each comprehensive high school as well as the IB program at a couple of high schools. To note, AP courses and the IB program is available to ALL students, whether in HCC or not. There is also Running Start which allows high school students to take college-level classes at community colleges. Again, this program is open to all students.
  • HCC is the exact same curriculum as every school. HCC does not provide teachers with any special training in teaching gifted learners. HCC classes run full at 32 in elementary and 35 in middle school.


Steve said…
Hi Melissa. Great to see you back! When I saw a new post on this blog, I thought it was some weird technical glitch posting information from the past. Glad it's you, and I hope you're doing well. My knowledge of what is going on in Seattle Schools has been greatly diminished since this blog stopped...

And ironic that one of your first posts, about Advanced Learning, could have been written 10 years ago. I think by the time the district figures this out and implements something that works, my kids will have kids attending school here.

Welcome Home said…
Thank you for calling attention to Asian students in the district's HC program. They are minorities.

Unknown said…
My kids were accepted to Cascadia back in 2015 and it was such a tremendous improvement in their education experience. Without HCC, my girls were put in front of online self-directed math teaching programs because they were so advanced from the rest of the class. In kindergarten and first grade, they would go to school and sit in a corner on a computer.

Now they are older and thank goodness are no longer impacted by this decision to remove HCC. I hope the school district builds on the past successes and creates an improved program to be more diverse rather than eliminate the ability to support advanced students all together.
Anonymous said…
She’s back!!!! Such a welcome voice.

Anonymous said…
Thanks for reviving the blog, and reviewing what's offered to students who need HC services. I wanted to point out that some of the info is not applicable to the HC services offered to students south of the Ship Canal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary and Washington Middle School. Neither has ever had the imagined model of a separate HC Cohort school or even fully separate HC classrooms. At TM, HC students are based in an HC classroom, and take accelerated Math, Science and Language Arts together, but other courses are not usually HC / cohorted. At Washington, with the advent this year of co-management of the school by Technology Access Foundation, families report that, with no warning, HC services are being phased out (6th grade this year, with one grade-level rollup per year). For current 7th- and 8th-graders, the District's stated approach to HC (curriculum 1-2 grade levels ahead or otherwise accelerated) ended in LA and Social Studies in the past few years.

This disregard for current Board policy and the recent example of ALO suggest that the upcoming changes in HC services will disproportionately hurt families of color in the South End.
Robyn said…
Thank you for resuming this blog! As a parent new to SPS, your information and perspective are so valuable.

I'll add to your synopsis that there was no testing this school year for advanced learning eligibility. As the school website says, "The Advanced Learning Department will not hold any in-person or remote testing this year for eligibility determinations due to COVID-19. Instead, existing historical data will be used to create a wholistic, comprehensive picture of student performance and potential for students in K-8. Classroom-based assessments will be reviewed along with any existing state or district assessment data and additional parent/teacher information (Student Skills Survey) regarding all referred students."

What this means is that my new to the district kid, who had a distinctly crappy experience with online learning, had no recourse for advanced learning eligibility unless we got private testing — which has a far higher bar to qualify, compared to the testing done in the schools.

It's hard to imagine this system is making AL referrals *more* equitable and it's certainly excluding anyone who has struggled with remote learning this year — which is an awful lot of students.
Sarah KB said…
Hi Melissa, would you be willing to speak a little more to this comment?: "The district also makes the outlandish claim that the HCC program, by itself, is 'central to the systemic racism' in SPS. Please."

Do you find the outlandish part to be that there is systemic racism in SPS? Or that HCC is part of it? Or that HCC is central to it? Or ..?

I know questions like these in a comment section read like I'm trying to bait you, and I'm really not. I am truly curious about your perspective and what feeds into it, since I (as a white, north-end parent with an HCC-qualified kid) do think the current HCC system is one of the most visible problematic factors in the systemic racism that the district has said it's trying -- on various levels and with various degrees of success -- to address.

Hey Anonymous, give yourself a name or I cannot print your comment in the future. You are right about Thurgood Marshall and Washington Middle School. I have no idea how those two schools are doing with how they changed HCC at their schools.

Robyn, that private testing will go away except for certain students. I’m not sure that is legal but that’s what the BAR says. I’m not sure staff and members of the Board have thought thru all the scenarios such as the one you present.

Sarah KB, I thought the comment clear but I’ll clarify.

To make the statement, that in and of itself, the Advanced Learning program is “central” to the systemic racism in SPS, is just ludicrous. It may be the most visible but no, that’s a damn easy out for the Board and staff to say that. And, do I think changing Advanced Learning will somehow right the ship in SPS? I do not.

Perhaps staff/the Board think the one-two punch of keeping all kids in their neighborhood schools AND the attention to Black boys will produce the outcomes they want. Or maybe, those two things PLUS Ethnic Studies. Or wait, more teachers of color?

My point is that one single thing is the the cause for the systemic racism nor is there just one thing that will fix it.

muh said…
I have been listening to the school board discussion on this policy change at last night's board meeting. It is incredibly depressing that there was vanishingly little discussion, or even acknowledgement, about what HC is, why it is, and what the educational goals are. If we actually wrote a policy about HC that focused on the why and the requirements than there might be hope of developing a new system.

The new policy is entirely focused on resolving the racism inherent in our school district, and there is almost nothing about what is actually required to ensure the educational process. Obviously, educational policies should be evaluated for how they affect different sub-populations in our district, but they should still be educational policies. A policy about HC education should be focused on the aspects that are codified in law - access to accelerated and enhanced education. When the district determines how to serve the education they will improve the racial equity as a by product, but I don't think the reverse will hold true. What we see when they only care about equality (which is NOT equity) is that the education is dismissed as undesirable. We have seen it over and over again this year.

There were many people who spoke in favor of the policy amendment. By far the reasons they gave were that they were hoping that this policy change would remedy the on-going failure of the district to identify HC students appropriately. However, there is NOTHING in the new policy that shows promise of enacting this change. There are no words about how HC students are served, just fewer guarantees that they will be served. What is left looks like it could devolve into a program that looks a lot like what we have today, with no meaningful changes in terms of holding schools responsible for identifying or serving students of all demographic groups.

Fundamentally the district needs to worry a little more about education, and needs to be thinking about policy and evaluation in terms of education.
Welxome Home said…
OSPI was smart enought to hold back $47M because the school board approved the district's unacceptable re-opening plan. The district and board approved HC changes are insufficient, as well. There is no reason to think the district will be able to provide HC services. I wish OSPI would hold back dollars- until the district/board get it right.

It is easy to break things. This board will help the district provide a standardized education; something the district has wanted for a long time-- including the elimination of option schools.

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