Federal Way’s academic policy pushed by lawmakers

msantos@theolympian.comApril 1, 2013 

Federal Way Public Schools has a simple system when it comes to enrolling students in Advanced Placement and honors classes: If students succeed in lower-level coursework, they’re automatically placed in a harder class.

Now state lawmakers are looking at Federal Way’s academic-acceleration policy as a model for the rest of Washington state.

Two proposals are circulating in the Legislature that aim to get more districts to emulate Federal Way. One would require districts to adopt a policy of automatically enrolling students in advanced coursework if they pass state tests.

The other would encourage all districts in the state to adopt a system similar to Federal Way’s, but wouldn’t make it mandatory.

Leaders of the South King County district say the automatic-enrollment policy has helped them boost minority enrollment in advanced courses and raised test scores districtwide.

Robert Neu, superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools, said that the typical system of requiring students and parents to ask to enroll in advanced classes hurts poor and minority students.

“The kids that get sorted out are traditionally of color — the underrepresented and the underserved kids,” Neu said.

Under Federal Way Public Schools’ academic-acceleration policy, parents still can choose to keep their children in lower-level classes if they would like to. But the default is to advance students to more rigorous coursework.

“All we’ve done is that instead of asking to get in, you have to ask to get out,” Neu said. Neu said that, thanks to the district’s automatic-enrollment policy, 76 percent of students in his district have taken at least one advanced level class, which he said was “unheard of” as far as he knew.

Participation in advanced programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Cambridge Program has doubled overall in Federal Way, Neu said, while Hispanic enrollment in those courses has increased by 400 percent. Additionally, the district’s number of Pacific Islanders enrolled in advanced classes has grown by 600 percent, Neu said.

Those are the kinds of results that state lawmakers would like to see throughout Washington, said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, sponsor of the Senate’s version of the academic-acceleration bill.

“We currently have a graduation rate of 77 percent – we’re failing about one out of every four kids,” said Litzow, who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “The kids we are failing are predominantly poor children of color. Our whole goal is, ‘How do we increase the graduation rate? How do we close that opportunity gap?’ ”

Litzow’s academic-acceleration bill, Senate Bill 5243, unanimously passed the Senate on March 6.

Two days later, the House passed a similar proposal, House Bill 1642.

The bills are in flux as they work their way through the legislative process, but the House Education Committee maintains that the policy should be optional for districts, while the Senate’s education committee wants to make it mandatory.

Dave Powell, lobbyist for the education reform group Stand for Children, said the House’s preference to make academic acceleration optional “defeats a lot of the primary purpose of the bill.”

“Districts can already do this if they want to, as evidenced by the fact that Federal Way is doing it,” Powell said. “We can keep having conversation about it, or when we find a policy and a program that’s working to close the opportunity gap, we can put it in place, and we can put it in place statewide.”

The Washington State School Directors Association favors giving school districts a choice about whether to implement automatic-enrollment policies, members testified before legislative committees last month.

“Just quite frankly, not every school district is made the same,” said Charlie Brown, lobbyist for Tacoma Public Schools, which already has approved certain forms of academic acceleration. “I know certainly Tacoma is and will be taking more advantage of academic-acceleration-type policies, but we didn’t feel as though we could stand up and say that what’s good for one district is good for all districts.”

Both plans would provide monetary awards for districts that enroll students in dual-credit programs such as Advanced Placement or College in the High School, which allow students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously. The bills also would provide districts with grants to help them offer more dual-credit and advanced classes.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209

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