Highly Capable Program in the State of Washington - Q & A on Legislation and Advocacy
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

In the summer of 2011, the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education and local advocates were instrumental in advocating for a number of legislative changes related to gifted education. This article contains answers to a number of questions presented by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

Question: Would you like to tell us a little about the new Highly Capable Program? What are the biggest differences in how the state of gifted education will change in Washington, compared to how it was previously?

Answer: Since 1984, services to Highly Capable Students (the Washington term for gifted students) have been on a voluntary basis. Districts applied for state grants to support their efforts. Districts who accepted these funds followed the state administrative code requirements for identification and programs. Districts determine the extent and type of services and file a year-end report on program status. The most recent report summary showed 206 of the 295 school districts in the state participated in the program, down substantially from prior years.

In 2009 the Legislature found "that for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to a basic education" and proposed a new funding formula. HB 2261, Section 708(1) was a statement of intent only and it required action by the Legislature in the 2011 session to implement it. When SB 5919 takes effect in September 2011, Washington will be the first, and only, state in the union to fund appropriate services for gifted students within basic education rather than as a supplement to it. The bill did it by making "Programs for highly capable students" part of "the instructional program of basic education provided by each school district." The 2011-2013 budget provided supplemental enhanced funds to HCPs under the new definition of basic education.

“Access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction through the program for highly capable students does not constitute an individual entitlement for any particular student.” Districts who previously chose not to apply for funding will now be required to offer and report on services for highly capable students in their district. Although the State provides a list of possible/recommended strategies for service, the approach is within local control.

The current Washington Administrative Code does not cover everything that follows from this new law. A working group of teachers, administrators, national experts and advocates convened to devise a new definition of a highly capable child, identification procedures/guidelines and programs that serve them. The 2011 Legislature did not review the Recommendations of the working group nor did it pass them in law; thus for the time being, districts will be guided by the current WACs. 

Q: Can you tell us about some of your efforts in implementing these changes? i.e. contacting legislators, petitions, advocacy efforts, etc.?

A: This has been a multi-year project with many participants. There are three statewide groups who advocate for these students:

Though separate, we coordinate efforts and decide on yearly goals through a joint leadership committee with representatives from each group. We meet several times a year in response to ongoing events in the Legislature. We employ a lobbyist who works directly with legislators and rely on volunteers to mobilize members of each group. Volunteers make personal contacts with their legislators, organize and participate in email blitzes, testify at committee meetings, and attend Gifted Education Day at the capitol during session.

Initially we relied on email messages sent to Coalition members who forwarded them to their own email lists. Many of our affiliate organizations have web sites and blogs of their own which also serve to pass on the word to a larger audience. NWGCA and WAETAG have periodic newsletters where they pass on our messages and encourage active participation in our activities.

In autumn 2010 the Coalition set up a Facebook account and a blog to further spread our message. It is an effective forum for answering questions, advertising events of interest to advocates, as well as a home to our advocacy materials. Learning how to use social media to our best advantage is ongoing.

In addition, many local groups have joined with us in our efforts; the activities of one are described in response to question four. Local groups strongly involved in their own programs are often willing to also participate in activities focused on the state Legislature. A majority of funding for programs in Washington is local, but without the state funds, many districts would be unwilling to expend local funds for a program the state does not support monetarily. Thus the actions of the Legislature remain key to prosperity for HCP programs.

Q: Do you have any advice for parents and advocates in other states in implementing similar changes?

A: All advocacy groups both local and state-wide need to work together to devise a focused effort with the legislature and the office of education for their state. Some states have already combined all their state-wide advocacy groups into one organization while others continue, as does Washington, to maintain separate groups who work together using a leadership group to communicate and focus on issues. We maintain a central communication node to keep all parties informed.

Work with what you have. Take advantage of opportunities to advocate on behalf of your gifted children; try to create opportunities. Seek alliances with other education groups in your state to support your issue/focus: two of our influential supporters are the state PTA and the Washington State School Directors Association. Finding committed legislators to support your efforts is vital. Contact legislators who hold key positions on education committees or in legislative leadership. Working closely with our key supporters we accomplished last year’s goals.

Q: I read that “Local parent organizations will now assume more responsibility for seeing that services are provided by the district.” How will this be done?

A: Washington is a local control state which in turn places responsibility on local groups to monitor and advocate. The coming years will be developmental as groups from districts with different populations and needs seek the best means to implement the law on a local basis. One active parent group is the Academic Booster Club of Puyallup. They are organized to support both local and statewide goals.

Founded thirty-two years ago, the Academic Booster Club (ABC) of Puyallup is a parent organization similar to a PTA that supports and advocates for the Highly Capable (HC) program for the Puyallup School District. The history of its success has two key components. First, ABC is organized to support the needs of students, families, and teachers and to work collaboratively with district administrators to identify and to meet the needs of HC students. ABC’s longstanding relationship with the district has resulted in key administrators’ genuine understanding of differentiated instruction for HC students that, in turn, provides opportunities for success (i.e., saving programs) when cuts are proposed.

Second, ABC makes an effort to be involved in the daily lives of students enrolled in the Puyallup Highly Capable program which helps increase student, teacher and family commitment to the organization; It maintains an active blog. ABC sponsors annual fundraisers that support a wide range of services, activities, and materials based on program needs. ABC supports academics by providing student planners for children, funds for classroom materials, and speakers for HC teacher training. ABC offers social events and parent education seminars for families from the nine HC program schools so they can meet and share information. Finally, ABC represents HC programs on decision-making committees at the school district and state level, testify in Olympia when needed, and call on the large network of parents of HC students when emailing, letter-writing, and phone-calling is needed. ABC sends a large delegation to the annual Gifted Education Day in the state capitol.

With state funding for Highly Capable Education programs in jeopardy, Academic Booster Club played an important role in maintaining HC funding at both the district and state level. ABC, as a local parent organization, will continue its responsibility to see that services for HC students are provided by the district and at the state level by nurturing these relationships.

The Davidson Institute would like to thank numerous people who helped answer these questions, especially Barbara Poyneer of the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education and Amy Prezbindoski.

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