Stories That Matter: How a Local Writer Built a Resource for Parents of Color Navigating Seattle's Gifted Program
Jasmine M. Pulido and the South Seattle Emerald, a non-profit digital news outlet, navigate educational equity on a human scale.
“At almost 40 years old, I’m still trying to internally dismantle the ways achieving has been tied to my self-worth,” Jasmine M. Pulido writes in her three-part series for the South Seattle Emerald titled “My Child of Color Is ‘Highly Capable.’ Now What?” Pulido is a Filipina-American writer, scientist, and community activist, among other things, and she is part of a roster of contributors to the Emerald, a non-profit digital news and culture publication that launched in the spring of 2014 with the mission of “amplifying the voice and experience of South Seattle.”
Seattle, like many cities, is historically heavily redlined and segregated; one of the consequences of ongoing inequity and racism is that some communities are underserved and neglected by journalism and media. The Emerald exists to partially fill this space, centering the voices and stories of South Seattle and its surroundings. The need that it meets is made clear by the quantity and quality of its reporting and stories, as well as the fact that it had its most profitable year in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.
“Highly capable” or “gifted” programs are often — perhaps always — both a source and a symptom of inequity in education. While the intentions behind the programs are usually at least understood to be about expanding resource access and meeting students’ needs, in practice they more often perpetuate inequity, feed the school-to-prison pipeline, and actively neglect and oppress students of color. Washington state requires highly capable programs, and in the Seattle Public School District, this takes the form of the Highly Capable Cohort. This program is a local example of a national reckoning going on with “gifted” programs; it is built to serve white students, even as school systems ostensibly try to build equity into it.
We spoke with Pulido about the SPSD’s program, the importance of local journalism, her motives and research behind this series, and how she became a de facto resource for other parents as they navigate this thorny issue with their own children.
What made you want to extrapolate your personal experience with the Seattle Public School District’s Highly Capable Cohort into a reported series for the Emerald? Did you pitch it anywhere else or was it always for the South Seattle Emerald?
Pulido: It was an Emerald thing through and through. I actually had not yet pitched another publication, mostly because I really liked writing for the Emerald and I really liked their mission, so I’ve spent a lot of my time building a relationship with them. I pitched it as its own thing to them. Previously, I had reported for them on medical racism in the Seattle Children’s Clinic, and that was actually my first foray into writing in a more reporter-journalistic style. Usually, I write more first-person pieces, and I run a column where I talk about my thoughts on race, racism, and racial equity in Seattle.
The reason that I wanted to write this from personal experience and tie into what’s happening on a local level and on a national level is because this is such a controversial issue and it’s so personal, and I think that the only way to have a real conversation was to make it a more humanized conversation. From what I had read that was already out in the media, it was all coming from an outsider or objective point of view, but what a lot of parents I had talked to were craving was just feeling some visibility in the struggle. I also think that there is a disconnect that happens, especially when we talk about race, and especially when we talk about it in a liberal progressive place like Seattle, between our personal life and then what’s happening on a more systemic level. I really wanted to highlight that disconnect and try to tie it together, to show how complicated it is for us to navigate trying to make sense of both of those pieces at the same time when it comes to something as personal as your kid.
How did you go about the reporting? How did you decide what shape the story would take?
Pulido: It was a very long process. It started out as, “Oh, my kid is getting into the Highly Capable Program.” There are all these rumors about what that means, but no one has a straight answer. There’s no specific source that just lays it out straight. My original idea was to lay this out very concisely for parents of color who are trying to navigate it so that they can see everything in one document. My understanding was that people were going down rabbit holes doing their own research, and even then were not necessarily getting all the information, so I wanted to make that a little bit easier because parents have such a large mental load in general. It’s one of those things where you’re like: “Why is this not already a thing? Why hasn’t anyone made this yet?” I thought, if I’m going to do that research anyway, why not share that information with everyone?
I started with interviewing educators and then parents to see where the disconnects were happening, and really find out from parents of color the reasons for saying yes or no to the program. What I ended up finding out was there was this very small, hyper-marginalized group of people within the HCC program who it sounded like were being largely dismissed, maybe because they were a very small population, maybe because of being a parent of color in general; wanting to invest in the program could be seen as being like a race traitor, for instance. A theme that I saw emerging was that these parents of color were not at all being taken seriously. The Seattle Public School District continues to say that it is trying to uplift students for educational justice and now here are these students who are for this educational justice and yet the district doesn’t seem to be listening to them. It became clear that the people who I was talking to in the district are really focused on the future and what’s happening in the future, and there was no real talk about what was happening in the present moment for people getting into the program now.
So I thought, OK, this is now a bigger thing where now I have to think about where the program was before and where it’s going to be after, and where it’s going to be that after. It started to become this mega piece; I actually submitted it as one piece. And the Emerald was like: “This is way too long. There’s no way we can do all this. Could you bring it down to 1,000 words or something?” I tried. I’m sure you’ve had this. I tried to edit out all this stuff. I have one document that’s just my process, I have one document that’s the actual document, and then there’s one document of fragments of the original document where I cut and paste stuff that I like, but I’m probably going to take out.
When I edited it down, it just became this very sterile article that I personally felt was a huge disservice to what is really going on emotionally for a lot of people with this program. So I went back to my editor and said, “Please let me publish this whole thing because I don’t feel there’s any justice in publishing it in this sterile format.” I offered a bunch of options and my editor said, “OK, I understand that you feel really strongly about this piece and OK, we’ll keep it. I’ll have someone else edit it out because I won’t have time to edit it.” So I worked with a different editor and she was the one that suggested putting it into three parts. We originally wanted to publish it each day, like Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but the Emerald was like: “We don’t ever do that. The best we can do is we could do it once a week.” I was really scared that no one would read it because it was going to be spaced far apart, but also there’s so much information that maybe it does take a week to process and they’ll come back. But it’s gotten a lot of really good response despite my apprehensions about that.
I want to ask you about that response, but before I do that, I want to ask you about what it is that you did end up cutting, and if there was anything that you wish was still in there, or if there was anything that surprised you?
Pulido: It’s hard to say whether things surprise me at this point, but I will say that there was a very large gender piece involved in the HCC program too, which I could not begin to talk about, and especially with my kid being a girl of color, that combination already has its own things to consider. I couldn’t talk about the intersectionality of marginalized identities. I mean, I did somewhat, down one very narrow path, but it definitely left a lot out about gender and about income. If I were to talk about that, I would need to be a book or something.
What kind of response have you gotten to this series, and what impact have you seen it have?
Pulido: I’ve been writing for the Emerald for a year and a half and one of the things that editors told me was that they’ve purposely made the publication so there’s a little bit more of a distance between the writer and what the feedback is or who’s responding [because there is no comments section]. And I don’t leave my email in the actual bio, so anyone who wants to email me has to actually do some work to find me. That being said, I usually get a little bit of a trickle of feedback, and that’s fine. And most of them are my friends. But with the HCC series in particular, I was tagged in a few posts where people were asking about where to find information about the HCC program, and someone’s like, “This was just published by the Emerald.” Or people who are just talking about the Highly Capable Program who want a little bit more input. I actually got an email today from someone whose kid was in the same preschool class as my kid, and they were like, “We don’t know what to do about middle schools.” So now I’m sort of becoming this point person. I’m almost like an unhired guidance counselor for the Seattle Public School District for this program.
I got a couple of really interesting emails from people that I interviewed. One was a white parent who had her child, a white boy, in an HCC program, but she was on the equity committee and they were doing a lot of work for that particular building. She emailed me to say she took her kid out of the program. She was like: “I read your article and I agree with you that a lot of white parents are in equity committees to levy their own guilt for contributing to their inequity.” I didn’t expect to have that response and so that was really interesting. I wasn’t really sure how to respond. Maybe it was more just to tell me what the impact is having on her thought process, but I had a little bit of a mixed feeling about it. I didn’t realize it was going to have an impact, I guess. But it’s amazing that it’s changing the conversation people are having with themselves about it. A school board member reached out to me and said that they had mentioned the HCC program recently and they thought about me and I was like, “That’s great.” I don’t really care if anyone agrees with me, honestly. All I care about is that it’s making people have a more nuanced conversation about it and what’s currently out there. That was my point of the piece.
Another parent reached out to me and said that they’re really upset about the district and the school board, and a lot of parents were understandably pretty upset in general about the way the district and the school board have been handling this program. I chose not to name any parents on purpose and chose not to name any particular political complex involved with the program, because I thought it would detract away from what the actual issue is. I just got off the phone right before you with a private school in California that has a twice exceptional program, and they’re wanting to open up a private school here in Seattle in 2022 that is based off of Seattle parents who had twice exceptional kids who had reached out to them. They wanted to ask me questions about the landscape here and what parents are really wanting based on the interviews I’ve done. And then you reached out to me, so this is definitely the most people who have reached out to me about this article.
Do you think that the Seattle Public School District’s Highly Capable Program is a microcosm for the national debate about gifted education in general, or no? It’s such a segregated city, but a lot of cities are.
Pulido: It’s true. I think, in Seattle’s case, it’s a lot. There are a lot of cities that are racially segregated, but I feel like the thing that makes Seattle so interesting is that Seattle is seen from the outside as a very progressive city. I’ve been here for 15 years and when I first moved here, I saw some of these things are backwards that I did not expect. I think that particular combination of the racial segregation and still not necessarily having a handle of how to approach it, even when we think we’re all on the same page about it I guess, I think that’s the conversation that’s ahead for some people.
I dabble in a couple of different spaces just because I have such an intersecting identity that also looks like passing in a lot of ways. I am in a predominantly white part of Seattle, but then I also work a lot with QTBIPOC spaces and what I’ve noticed is that the conversations they’re having in those spaces are just lightyears ahead of the conversation they’re having in a predominantly white space, even though that space is pretty progressive; it’s like the language is almost totally different. Then I go into Asian-American spaces and they’re somewhere in between. It almost seems like you have to go through a certain process, like there are specific phases that you’re going through when you’re having these conversations, especially around racial equity, and you can’t really go to the next phase without having the conversation before that. I think Seattle, in that sense, is like a microcosm, because they’re in a specific part of the conversation that I think other places are trying to get to, and yet we also haven’t made so much progress as people think we would have. Every level just opens up more questions, right?
I think the biggest thing about Seattle, and I can’t speak for other cities because I don’t know the racial segregation in other cities so well, but it’s so apparent in this one school district — there’s such a line. It’s the ship canal, like there’s a specific line, because of housing laws that makes the contrast so disparate. It’s almost satirical. Even if you look at HCC statistics, they actually have a map on the SPSD website where you can see where most of the students are coming from. It’s laid out pretty transparently. I mean, not transparently because it’s hard to find the page, but then once you find the page, there’s no way to ignore it.
Along those lines, in the final installment of the series, you talk about the SPSD’s plan to phase out the cohort model and turn it into a services model in an attempt to make it more accessible and inclusive. That sounds good in theory, but you also point out that there have been years of a lot of bureaucracy and not a lot of action, and that there’s a lot of mistrust. You write about yourself having hope and skepticism around the work that’s being done. What have you seen change or not change in the last year or since the series was published this summer, especially now that school is starting again?
Pulido: That's a hard question. Here’s where my sympathy comes from: I know a lot of amazing educators. I’m friends with a lot of amazing educators. And, growing up, a lot of my friends in my hometown became educators. Even in doing the interviews, there’s so much passion that comes from the educators when they’re talking about trying to change this mammoth thing that they’re just getting grilled about every single day. I have a lot of sympathy for that. One of the conversations I was having with a former educator was that we’re both well aware that there are some badass educators really trying to push this work forward, and we’re well aware of a lot of communities, organizations, and parents who are really trying to push for it too on the outside. So why is everyone so ineffective? Why is this such a problem? If everyone agrees what the problems are, everyone wants the same thing, everyone’s working really hard and is super passionate, then how come I’m writing this, right?
Someone emailed me and said; “So, you’re optimistic?” And I don’t know if I could say I’m optimistic. I would say I’m skeptical, but trying to maintain some hope, because I believe in educators — and yet they are also this cog in the system, so it’s complicated. That being said, my biggest thing is that all could be happening, but the only thing that really matters in the end is, what’s the impact on the ground? If my kid is just getting the same thing they would have gotten 10 years ago and nothing’s different, then why does it matter?
The other thing I try to keep in mind is not to base my opinion on social media, putting all of the cynicism aside, keeping in mind there are some things that are starting to work. For instance, someone was just talking to me about all of the lunches being free. That’s a huge deal and yet we don’t even know how that came to be. I would love more transparency around that so you can replicate those outcomes in other areas. It should be accessible for everyone. How do we move that to other areas of the education system? I at least tried to put the cynicism aside and be like, there are some things that are working. It’s never going to be enough until it is enough. I definitely have that dichotomy in me. I have to be patient for the larger change, and I’m also really impatient.
Do you have any final thoughts after reporting the story? What are your major takeaways or ideas around the best way to reform or abolish these programs, or in general to better meet the needs of all students?
Pulido: I didn’t realize it was going to get as much traction as it did. I thought it was just going to go out there and some people were going to be cool with it and that was it. Even though I did two months of really intense research trying to put this together, I didn’t realize just how much parents of color really don’t feel listened to. It made it so apparent how important it was to have a voice like that in the media. I didn’t realize it would be such an empowering tool for a lot of parents of color, specifically within Seattle.
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
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Predict: What Happens Next?
“I hope that I can start to become this point person for how to have these more complicated conversations that get away from blaming any particular person, and get closer to understanding the personal and then the interpersonal and then the political layers that are interacting and adding to the dynamics of the conversation that we’re having at any moment,” Jasmine M. Pulido says. “The other thing I really took away from [reporting this series] was just how many barriers are in place for people who are having an intersectional experience with the school system, and it really bothered me that a lot of parents didn’t feel that they could even vocalize their experience to anyone to begin with. Why aren’t we having a nuanced conversation about their stories? That’s what I like about writing for the Emerald: I get to hear those stories, and a lot of other things I’ve read try to simplify it or reduce it down to this binary narrative and I’m really trying to stay away from that.”
Read: More on Equity in Gifted Programs in Seattle and Beyond
For the Associated Press, Bobby Caina Calvan breaks down the national debate and statistics on inequity and gifted programs, citing Seattle as an example: “Schools Debate: Gifted and Talented, or Racist and Elitist?,” October 28, 2021
For the Seattle Times, Hannah Furfaro writes about the stark black-white divide in the Seattle Public School District’s Highly Capable Cohort program and contextualizes it with statistics about discipline: “Black-White Divide in Seattle Schools’ Gifted Programs, Discipline Rates Among Worst in Nation,” February 17, 2020
For KUOW, Liz Brazile writes about one Seattle public middle school where a STEM program will be implemented while the HCC program is eliminated: “Washington Middle School to Be Turned Into STEM School; ‘Highly Capable’ Classes Will Go,” January 22, 2020
In the Stranger, Katie Herzog provides some human and historical context for Seattle’s HCC program: “The Battle Over Seattle Public School’s Gifted Progams Heats Up,” December 4, 2019
Meet: About the Author
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.