Here’s how Whatcom school districts are challenging their Highly Capable Learners

The Highly Capable Learners program, known as HCL, is for students who have been identified as performing at an exceptionally high level academically and demonstrate a need for support to grow because they may learn more quickly or have a propensity to focus more deeply and intensely on a topic or concept.
The Highly Capable Learners program, known as HCL, is for students who have been identified as performing at an exceptionally high level academically and demonstrate a need for support to grow because they may learn more quickly or have a propensity to focus more deeply and intensely on a topic or concept. Getty Images

As the parent of two highly capable children in the Bellingham School District, Veronica Douglas said she never worried about them being labeled as such or different from others.

“They are who they are and have been encouraged to be true to themselves while being compassionate for others,” Douglas said. “When we started attending Bellingham Public Schools, the Highly Capable Learners program was very different than it is now and offered very different services. I wanted my children to participate in whatever services were offered. I also knew I was willing to help encourage and work with the district to improve the offerings. My only worry has been whether they are getting their needs met on a consistent basis.”

Both of her children, Jared, 18, and Marissa, 15, were accepted into the program in 2010. Jared was entering sixth grade; Marissa was entering second grade.

The Highly Capable Learners program, known as HCL, is for high-performing students. In some states it is referred to as “Gifted and Talented Education.” The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which is the primary agency charged with overseeing K-12 public education in Washington state uses “highly capable,” and it makes sense that districts would follow its lead, said Dawn Christiana, director of teaching and learning.

The program is a service provided for students who have been identified as performing at an exceptionally high level academically and demonstrate a need for support to grow because they may learn more quickly or have a propensity to focus more deeply and intensely on a topic or concept.

Marissa, who will be a sophomore, has a 4.0 GPA and plans to study some form of engineering, most likely biomedical engineering or an engineer for amusement parks. The HCL program will help her achieve her goals, because the district starting in middle school established a faster, more appropriate math path for her that allows her to take higher-level courses, she said.

“The two best parts about this program were that my children were given opportunities to work with other children who thought and worked similarly and that they were challenged academically,” Douglas said. “Working with like-minded people is very important to self-esteem, to understanding effective project teamwork, and to staying engaged and challenged. By experiencing challenge academically, my children have learned how to fail and get back up and how to prioritize their workload.”

There are benefits outside of academics, Marissa said.

“I made friends with people who think more like me; learned how to problem solve better due to the Future Problem Solvers program. … The process of Future Problem Solvers writing has crossed over to help me solve problems in many areas of my life. I have ongoing health issues that keep me from attending school sometimes. Because of my status as an HCL student, my teachers are more aware of my abilities and would often allow me to do less of the practice assignments and show what I could do on exams.”

She usually spends two to three hours per day doing homework. In the upcoming school year she will enroll in a newly offered world language class, precalculus, world history, AP psychology, two 11th grade-level English classes, quantitative chemistry and art classes.

Marissa said she most enjoyed being in the program in elementary school when she could learn in small pull-out classes about subjects she was interested in. In middle school, she said she felt her HCL opportunities were limited to the Future Problem Solvers program and later, an accelerated math class. The Future Problem Solvers program was a large group of students researching subjects she wasn’t as interested in. The longer she was in the program, the less she felt it was an HCL program specified for a select group of students because any student was able to join and any number could join, which meant a bigger class size.

“Now, in high school, I appreciate being able to choose classes I’m interested in again but I struggle with the class sizes,” Marissa said. “I think the key thing in the education of an HCL student is that they get the attention they need for their abilities and that can only happen if the classes are small enough to be personal and engaging.”

Any student in the Bellingham School District, or enrolled in public school in the state of Washington, can be identified as Highly Capable. There are currently more than 800 students identified as highly capable in the Bellingham School District. Each district determines its criteria for that identification and provides services in a variety of ways.

“These students are found in all of our schools, across ages and stages and different demographic groups,” Christiana said. “They are as unique as all of our students and the identification of highly capable can be a way to support the staff in attending to their different learning needs various ways. We also really focus on the academic areas for highly capable and states/districts that focus on gifted and talented also identify students who are exceptional in the arts.”

Bellingham Public Schools use a portfolio approach that includes achievement data (district and state test scores), aptitude scores and qualitative information (parent questionnaire, teacher survey and potentially work samples). Students are considered based on parent, teacher, community or student self-referral and in second grade where they have a universal screener, Christiana said. The screener provides an opportunity for the district to equitably look at all students through the lens of highly capable. The screening data is mined for the top three percent of students based on performance, age, gender, ethnicity, school, birth date and languages spoken.

Once a student is identified as highly capable, they are identified through graduation, in accordance with the state expectations.

“As a district, we assess second-grade students in January and identify students before the end of the year to establish their first student learning plan, which outlines how we will serve the student to support their needs as a student identified as highly capable in literacy (verbally qualified), math (quantitatively qualified) and/or spatial reasoning (non-verbal qualification),” Christiana said.

The district does not set limits on the number of students who can be identified as highly capable, and it does its best to accommodate students with a continuum of services, Christiana said.

“We also find that many students identified highly capable benefit from a focus on social emotional learning and need strategies to manage their emotions, develop a growth mindset to overcome perfectionism, learn time management and organizational skills and a host of other skills,” Christiana said.

Lynden schools program

The Lynden School District has a long history of serving high-performing students using a variety of strategies. It offers a continuum of K-12 services to students identified through a formal process in accordance with state law. The process occurs annually. Once a student is identified as having unique learning needs, educators will match the student to one or more district services which best meet the student’s needs, according to Megan Dickson, coordinator of the highly capable program.

Once a student has been identified as highly capable, he or she will remain in the program as long as he or she is meeting the achievement criteria.

Every January, students with a parent referral, a teacher or community referral or a self-referral on file and who have not tested within the last year are eligible to test. They will receive parent/guardian permission letter with the date, time and place of the assessment, mailed to the address registered with the school district. If you have not received the letter by the middle of February, call the office at 360-354-4443.

You will be informed of your student’s eligibility by mail.

The district does not accept private testing results as a substitute for the district’s highly capable identification process. All students must go through the district’s identification process to be considered eligible for the highly capable program. If special circumstances warrant one-on-one testing, individualized testing may be approved. This testing will be conducted by school district personnel.

Testing is provided at no cost for students who are registered and reside within Lynden School District boundaries. Students moving into the district must be enrolled prior to testing.

Students who apply to the program are often bright, do well in school and will continue to do well. Some students apply because they are not being successful in school and feel like they need to be challenged in a different way. Your student’s teacher and principal will work with you to provide appropriate opportunities for your student.

Ferndale schools program

The Ferndale School District offers many options for students and families. Those options include pull out enrichment and magnet programs for identified students in grades K-8. Screening and assessment occurs in the fall and spring each year for the following year.

“Our enrichment and magnet programs are just one example of the options we offer to families and students,” Superintendent Dr. Linda Quinn said. “Others include a new home-based instruction program called Ferndale Family Connections, the SOAR program, which supports students who have experienced barriers in school but have a desire to graduate, and spring and summer Jump Start Kindergarten to help some of our youngest learners prepare for their education journey. We provide lots of options because want all students to have a great start to their future.”