Four years ago, Federal Way school officials looked into the classrooms of their high schools’ college-prep classes and decided they didn’t reflect the district’s income and ethnic diversity.
Kids in the classes were middle class, mostly white students headed for college anyway. Few were minorities or from low-income families. Opting into the classes, assuming a student qualified academically, had been voluntary.
Then the suburban school district just up the freeway from Tacoma decided to try something it hadn’t seen done anywhere else: It automatically enrolled all students who qualified with scores on state achievement tests into the schools’ most challenging classes. The only way to opt out was with a parent’s permission.
Nearly all students stayed in, and the numbers of minority and low-income students taking the classes increased. Test scores overall went up. And the district superintendent, Rob Neu, has been talking about the program at education conferences around the country.
“It was a pretty dramatic shift that first year,” he said in an interview. “But four years later, what we found is we’ve re-cultured the district.”
The concept will soon take off in Tacoma as well. This summer, after state test scores are in, families whose students score well will receive letters letting them know that their students will be automatically enrolled in advanced coursework in the fall.
“Sometimes students aren’t your high-flying A and B students, and yet they have the skills necessary to be successful in college-level classes,” said Doug Hostetter, director of secondary education for Tacoma Public Schools.
“They didn’t see themselves as college-level students, and yet we’re telling them, ‘Yes, you are,’ ” he said.
Tacoma deputy superintendent Josh Garcia, who helped launch Federal Way’s academic acceleration policy before moving to his post in Tacoma, said Tacoma is already seeing dramatic increases in enrollment in college-prep level classes, even before formal implementation of the district’s new academic acceleration policy.
One example is at Wilson High School, where Principal Dan Besett estimates that enrollment in next year’s Advanced Placement classes will be close to 800 — out of a total student body of about 1,225. Wilson sent 17 teachers last summer to AP training. He said teachers and counselors have been encouraging students to sign up.
“It’s a different curriculum, and a different style of teaching,” Besett said.
He said students who opt into the school’s AP classes often do so with some trepidation.
“It’s about having the confidence to try to take one,” he said. “Once they are in the class, they realize that they are just like all the other kids.”
Kristen Orlando, a Wilson English teacher who has taught AP classes for five years, said she tells students that “it’s not about how smart you are. It’s about how hard you are willing to work.”
Besett said fears that AP classes will somehow be watered down to accommodate the newly enrolled students are misplaced: “AP curriculum is very rigorous. You can’t dumb it down.”
Tacoma schools won’t get state exam scores until summer, and students already are registering for classes, so the timing is difficult, Hostetter said.
Students who fall just under the standard can still opt in, he added: “We encourage them to do so.” The district’s AP teachers will be trained in how to present material in ways that meet the different needs of students and help those who need to catch up, he said.
The pioneering work done in Federal Way, and soon to debut in Tacoma, helped prompt new state legislation that encourages all school districts to adopt academic acceleration policies.
FEDERAL WAY’S RIGOROUS PROGRAMS
Federal Way’s four high schools offer Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Preparatory Academy classes. All are rigorous, nationally recognized programs aimed at preparing students for college work. This month, students nationwide are taking AP and IB exams. Those who score well qualify for class credits at some colleges and universities.
Overall participation in the accelerated classes in Federal Way’s high schools went up nearly 200 percent between 2008, before the policy change, and 2013.
But the district lags Washington state and the nation in exam results. Last year, 35 percent of Federal Way students who took AP classes passed, compared with 59 percent statewide and 57 percent nationwide.
The College Board, which administers the AP, advertises it to students as a way to challenge themselves and develop skills they’ll need in college, as well as a chance to waive college classes and save money on tuition.
Liz Drake, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, part of Federal Way Public Schools, said that before the district’s automatic enrollment program began, many students shied away.
“Our students of color would not feel confident that they would be successful, and no matter what we did, it was an uphill battle,” she said.
At first, there weren’t enough programs to give struggling students extra help, and some students failed, Drake said, adding: “I think we definitely turned that around.”
Baasheera Agyeman, a Thomas Jefferson senior, said her experience was typical of her peers.
“Doing well showed me I did have the potential to be a better student than I was,” she said. “That’s why I stayed in the class.”
Agyeman, whose parents are from Ghana, took IB French and literature as a junior and was one of the few students of color in the literature class. Now planning to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the fall, she said, “There’s still more people to reach, and there’s still more that can be done. But for the most part, it is dropping seeds into something that can be big.”
A report last year by The Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools, two groups devoted to closing the achievement gap, found that about 12 percent of high school students attending schools with AP classes take them. It also found that if low-income and African-American, Latino and Native American students took the advanced classes at the same rate as their peers, more than 600,000 additional students would be in the classes.
“AP and IB courses are a powerful means of disrupting high-end achievement gaps, but too many low-income students and students of color are missing out,” the report said.
The College Board is trying to expand AP to more schools, but there’s still much more to do to increase participation within schools that already have AP classes, said Christina Theokas, director of research at The Education Trust and a co-author of the report.