A proposed systemic change to Vancouver Public Schools’ Highly Capable Program — a districtwide gifted-and-talented equivalent — was met with confusion and disapproval during Tuesday night’s board meeting. Both board members and parents cited concerns about communication and transparency regarding the research that prompted the proposal.
As it stands, elementary students identified as Highly Capable (HiCap) are given the option to enroll in one of two schools — Eisenhower Elementary School and Truman Elementary School — to participate in a self-contained program where they have class alongside other HiCap students. Alternatively, students may attend their neighborhood school and be provided with materials appropriate for their advanced level.
The proposed changes — which were outlined in the meeting by Superintendent Jeff Snell; Darci Fronk, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction; and Erin Lark, a program teacher — would do away with the self-contained model by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. The program would also adopt a new “neighborhood” model that would disperse Highly Capable services throughout the district.
New “cluster classrooms” would feature combinations of both HiCap students and general education students and would be staffed through general education funds.
The reasoning for the change, they said, is a combination of low interest in the self-contained model and an urge to find ways to make HiCap services more accessible as part of the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
The overwhelming response from the district’s board of directors was that while the urge to make the services more equitable is well-intentioned, there’s not been enough research nor conversations with teachers and community members on how to go about making such a change.
“I’m apprehensive that we make this change for next year because we need a tangible plan for what this looks like. What are the trade-offs? What are the investments? How do we leverage our current staff that are experienced with HiCap to roll out a really successful neighborhood model?” asked director Kyle Sproul, who’s served on the board since 2019. “I understand the direction we’re moving in, but I’m not sure we’re ready for next year.”
Parents share stories
Dozens of parents advocated for the continuation of the self-contained model during the meeting’s citizen comments section. While sharing stories of their children’s successes within the self-contained model — as well as firsthand testimonies from students enrolled in the program — some felt the proposed changes came as a surprise.
“My kid has been in this program for three years. Nobody’s ever asked us about our experience,” said Mark Beatty, a parent in the district. “I don’t know who they’re reaching out to, but it ain’t us. I don’t even know anyone who’s done these surveys.”
According to the district, the survey in question was sent via email March 25 to families of HiCap elementary students and collected through April 5. It asked open-ended questions about how parents are feeling about the program and how services can be better tailored to their children.
Alison Sundwall, a paraeducator at Eisenhower and parent of two children in the district, said she found out about the proposed changes last week.
“Teachers were not consulted enough,” she said in a meeting with fellow concerned parents Monday. “And I don’t feel the survey to parents was done in good faith, certainly not with transparency.”
Others felt that the biggest barrier to the self-contained model was a lack of provided transportation, an obstacle that clutters the mornings of already-busy parents.
“They provide a stipend, but that doesn’t address logistics issues,” said Charlotte Akin, a former manager of HiCap services in Evergreen Public Schools. “We shouldn’t water down programs because we can’t transport them.”
The meeting concluded with the board recommending that the proposal be further reviewed, with more research and input from community stakeholders — which struck a chord with many of the parents who spoke Tuesday.
“This is the first program we’ve changed under the new equity policy, so I think for me there’s a sense of, ‘We really need to get this right,’” Sproul said.
For more information on the Highly Capable program and how your child may be eligible for its services, visit https://vansd.org/highly-capable-services.