When Juanita Ricks’ biracial daughter Alexandra tested into the highly gifted program, Ricks, who is black, and her then-husband, who is white, toured the school Alexandra would attend: Washington Middle School in the Central District.
The program looked great, Ricks said. But they were disturbed that the gifted classes were almost entirely white and Asian, while the rest of the school was mostly students of color.
“That would be the experience of our brown daughter, being in this exclusive group,” Ricks said. “That might leave her with some questions about how her identity sort of fit with where she was and where she wasn't."
Ricks and her husband decided against Washington. They sent Alexandra to their racially diverse neighborhood school, Mercer Middle School, instead.
Seven elementary and middle schools in Seattle have that highly gifted program, known as the Highly Capable Cohort. (It used to be called APP, for Accelerated Progress Program.) Most of the students in this program are white and Asian.
Last year, just 1 percent of the program was black, even though the district was 16 percent black. Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander students are significantly underrepresented, too.
At Cascadia Elementary in Wallingford, which is entirely highly gifted, only four children are counted as black — out of 754 students. That’s 0.5 percent.
Even a school in Seattle’s diverse south end follows this trend.
About 550 children attend Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, in Seattle's Judkins Park neighborhood. The school is named after the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lawyer, Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education before the high court.
If he were alive today, Justice Marshall would probably find the school's demographics encouraging: 43 percent white, 18 percent black, 15 percent Asian and 8 percent Latino. But if Marshall could peer into the classrooms, he would see striking segregation.
"We have a school that is two-thirds Highly Capable [Cohort] students, and most students are white in that group," said Katie May, Thurgood Marshall principal.
"Then we have our neighborhood program, which are general education students, just like in any school. And they are largely students of color — almost exclusively in some classes."
There are many reasons for this disparity.
Many white students don’t have high enough test scores to qualify for the highly-gifted program, but get in anyway through an expensive back channel. In a recent testing window, one-quarter of all students, most of them white, got in through an appeals process: They didn’t score high enough on the district test, so they got private testing from psychologists at a cost of up to $1,200.
The district offers free individual testing to low-income families who want to appeal. But last year just 10 kids took advantage of it.
Racial and cultural biases play a role in whether kids are identified as gifted, too. Principal May said teachers don't always know what to look for in a student.
"We might think who is gifted always has the answer, and always has their hands in the air, and they have a lot to say. But in every culture that may not be the way kids are expected to act in school," she said.
Some cultures encourage kids to be quiet and reserved, or avoid eye contact. Highly-capable students may not apply themselves and get the best grades, and might fool around in class.
But while a white kid who talks a lot and goofs off can be seen as precocious, a black kid who acts the same might be seen as a troublemaker.
A recent study found that black students are three times more likely to be identified as gifted by a black teacher. But most of the teachers in Seattle are white.
Finally, some parents, like Juanita Ricks, rule out the gifted program because it’s too white. Black and Latino families whose children test into the program are less likely to enroll than white or Asian families.
The school district knows all this. Stephen Martin, head of Seattle Public Schools' Advanced Learning department, said the district has made efforts to address the problem.
The district recently started screening every second-grader in predominantly low-income schools. Teachers are being trained to identify students of color who might qualify for gifted classes.
But even if students are referred for testing, Martin acknowledged that getting kids to the test can be a challenge for low-income families because it's offered only on Saturdays, at just a few schools.
"Testing is a big issue,” Martin said. “It's a big problem in terms of getting 5,000 students evaluated within a very short window of time."
Despite the district’s efforts, diversity in the gifted program has grown only slightly in recent years. That frustrates parent Devin Bruckner. Her family is white, and her son is in the gifted program at Thurgood Marshall.
Bruckner said she'd heard that the program was quite segregated.
"Once I actually got into the school, and my son was in the program, I realized it was more extreme and even less diverse than I had imagined," Bruckner said. She's now part of the Racial Equity in HCC Team, a group of parents focused on desegregation.
As Bruckner sees it, the district isn’t moving nearly fast enough to diversify the program. Her group is calling on the district to take more steps toward equity. They recommend methods from districts around the country: universal testing of all second-graders, simplifying the referral and testing process, and more deliberate recruitment of underrepresented students.
"The district can talk to teachers, and principals, and community center members to learn what students might be a great fit for this program. And then the district can call those families and invite them to apply," Bruckner said.
Without more action, the district’s stated commitment to racial equity is meaningless, Bruckner said.
"I believe institutional racism is a real thing,” she said. “It requires people taking their time and putting in effort to try to dismantle it," she said.
Bruckner said a more diverse gifted program would benefit not just kids of color, but white students, like her son. Fellow mother Juanita Ricks agrees.
"They would benefit from the opportunity to be in racially integrated experiences where they saw high achieving, aspirant young brown children who would be their peer,” Ricks said. “Who would best them at tests sometimes, and not best them at tests at other times. So I think that they would, as well as we would, benefit from the opportunities for a more racially integrated educational experience.”
Correction 1/27/17: An earlier version of this story included the former name of the Racial Equity in HCC Team.