Federal Way school board reviews early learning programs

Students in Sunnycrest Elementary’s dual-language program listen during a teaching lesson.  - Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools
Students in Sunnycrest Elementary’s dual-language program listen during a teaching lesson.
— image credit: Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools

With an increased push towards “early learning development” at both the state and federal levels, Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) has been working to get the district’s early learning program up to speed.

Early learning encompasses pre-kindergarten through third grade and FWPS Director of Early Learning Luisa Sanchez-Nilsen stressed the importance of early learning for students.

“Why (pre-kindergarten) through third grade?” Sanchez-Nilsen asked during her presentation to the board on Feb. 11. “Because the first 2,000 days matter. For every dollar spent at the beginning of the year, it’s a return investment of $8-$9 dollars. We’ll also see that as we address this through comprehensive approaches, that can lead to preventing and closing achievement gaps, and have higher education rates.”

Sanchez-Nilsen said that children not proficient in needed skills by the end of third grade are four times more likely not to graduate on time.

“As we look at this through a national lens, this (also holds) true … When we look at proficiency in reading in the United States, (that proficiency) continues to be unacceptably low for low-income students and students of color,” Sanchez-Nilsen shared.

In Federal Way, Sanchez-Nilsen noted the district currently has 1,800 students in all-day kindergarten, and averages about 1,600 students per grade level from kindergarten to third grade. For this school year, Sanchez-Nilsen’s department has focused on six schools as part of the federal Race to the Top program: Lake Grove, Mark Twain, Mirror Lake, Olympic View, Wildwood and Sunnycrest. According to Sanchez-Nilsen, 80 percent of the students in those schools are on the free or reduced lunch program, and 50 percent of the students in those schools are students of color.

The district also targeted these particular schools because at the beginning of the school year, 50 percent of the students at those schools were not meeting benchmarks for reading, writing and math.

To address the issues at the six schools, and eventually all of the elementary schools in the district, the Early Learning Department follows the district’s early learning plan, said Sanchez-Nilsen. That plan is the outcome of collaborative work between the district, Thrive by Five, the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington State Department of Early Learning.

Part of the program involves bringing in Early Care and Education (ECE) providers (pre-school, etc.) into the fold, so those providers can align their teaching with the district and vice versa, she added.

“When we look at the vision of the Washington state (early learning) plan, it really is to work together so that all children start life with a solid foundation for success based on strong families and a world-class early learning system for all children prenatal through third grade,” she said. “(The district’s plans are) aligned, balanced, integrated … We have a vertical integration so that we’re moving from early learning to the K-12 system, hopefully for (students) to be career and college ready. In addition, everything we do, we hope is relevant and that it’s developmentally appropriate.”

Board member Danny Peterson said he’s happy with the work that Sanchez-Nilsen and the ELD has accomplished so far.

“I just want to say, (early learning) is my world with my 2-and-a-half year old, and my 5-year-old,” he said. “We’re so grateful to have someone of your caliber here at our district, grabbing these young minds, and investing early and often. We appreciate the work and what’s going to be coming (from it) because of the work your team does.”

To learn more about the programs the district currently provides for early learning, visit


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