Azure Savage is part of a "gifted and talented” program at Garfield High School in Seattle — an opportunity the senior was granted after scoring in the top 2% on an exam in kindergarten.
"I was the only black student in my class for almost every single year," he says of the program.
But this was never the case for the schools as a whole: Less than 2% of students in the accelerated program in Seattle are black, while black and Hispanic students make up about 34% of the population at Savage's high school.
There’s been lots of scrutiny in recent years over how public schools in the U.S. select students for these programs. Children as young as 4 years old can take entrance exams, which afford them an accelerated education through high school.
Seattle's Highly Capable Cohort program tracks students from elementary to middle school and then impacts their high school experience by determining if they can take advanced placement classes, Savage says. There are more than 4,000 kids in the program, according to The Seattle Times.
When he attended Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, Savage recalls black and brown students making up the majority of the population. None of them were in the gifted program.
"I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t have classes with any of them," he says. "So I was completely segregated in terms of what program you were in."
The 18-year-old's experience in the Seattle program prompted him to write “You Failed Us: Students of Color Talk Seattle Schools,” where he calls for an end to the racially segregated initiative.
U.S. News & World Report ranks Garfield High School, where Savage attends, among the top 3% of high schools in the country. The Seattle Times reports 67% of the school is white, though whites make up only 47% of the district.
Seattle isn't the only school district in the U.S. that's still racially segregated. In New York City — where less than 1% of the city's most selective high school identify as black — parents pay up to $400 per hour to prep their 4-year-olds for the city's gifted test, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Beyond academics, Savage says being in a white program sparked issues in his racial identity.
"I wasn’t sure if I was per se allowed to be black. I wasn’t sure if that was an identity that I was even allowed to take on because I felt like I didn’t know much about it," he says. "I didn’t have any friends who were black. It made me very confused as a child about who I was and where I fit in."
Savage doesn't think changing the program can make it equitable for students of color — and judging kids on an exam taken before puberty isn't an efficient way to assess what they'll be capable of later in their academic career, he says.
Instead, he says schools need to listen to students and acknowledge that the program is racist.
Savage says seeing students of color from across the district coming together to make a change gives him hope.
"I think that above all, this program needs to be dismantled completely," he says. "Underlying all of this is a lot of institutional racism and I don’t see how this program, in the way it's set up, could ever possibly be fully equitable and have absolutely no racism involved."
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.