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State of Federal Way schools: ‘All means all’ motto put to the test

Superintendent Robert Neu kicked off 2011 with a “state of the schools” speech given exclusively at a Federal Way Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Jan. 12. - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Superintendent Robert Neu kicked off 2011 with a “state of the schools” speech given exclusively at a Federal Way Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Jan. 12.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Robert Neu began his first “state of the schools” speech with an impression of a snakeskin-shoe wearing baptist preacher. He spouted educational hosannas, accented his phrases with an “ah!” and even waded into the crowd to lay his academically anointed hands on the provisional parishioners.

In Neu’s keynote speech at the monthly Federal Way Chamber of Commerce luncheon, the fire-and-brimstone impression was an ironic device to show that he would not merely use the speech to praise the gospel of district policies like academic acceleration and Policy Governance.

It was his first “state of the schools” speech after taking the reigns six months ago from former superintendent Tom Murphy.

After he settled down and retook the podium, he began his speech in earnest.

“Unlike the overzealous evangelical superintendent, I didn’t come here to save a school district: I didn’t need to,” he said. “I came here because I believe in the work we are doing and hope to add value to the work that’s been done.”

He was speaking to a capacity crowd at the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club. Preceding Neu was David Stewart, president of the local for-profit DeVry University branch, and Highline Community College President Jack Bermingham.

Neu steered his speech to a historical summary of modern American education: an imperfect system devised by Thomas Jefferson, a defeat of U.S. education by U.S.S.R. in the 1950s, and now a test-result based system fostered by the federal No Child Left Behind act that was signed into law in 2002.

Federal oversight has been OK, he said, because it forces districts to use data to measure performance. But does the data leave something out?

No Child Left Behind “has had a positive overall impact on public education,” he said. “But we don’t measure our effectiveness on the development of the whole child. We don’t measure the effectiveness and our performance in the arts, or in extracurricular programs and activities. We don’t discuss the impact that our overall program has on our children.”

So how does this relate to the state of Federal Way’s school system?

Neu said the district is attempting to embrace its slogan “all means all” with three different policies. The first is Policy Governance, a new bureaucratic arrangement for the school board. The second is “academic acceleration,” which places students who pass state tests in advanced placement classes; the policy also allows students into advanced classes simply by asking, even if they don’t pass the state test. The third is standards-based education, which assesses and grades by “a student’s performance over several opportunities rather than merely averaging tests and quizzes,” according to the district.

Neu extolled some recent (and pending) district accomplishments: a new Lakota Middle School, the future new Sunnycrest and Lakeland elementary schools, the success of the Thomas Jefferson High School math team, and a variety of other grants and academic honors.

Neu ended his speech by accepting the meme that “American public schools are in crisis.” But he laid the blame for that at the feet of politicians who pass “ridiculous policy under the guise of education reform” and because “we don’t have enough school districts like Federal Way who are willing to do what is right for all of the children that they serve.”

He stealthily knocked Olympia politicians. Gov. Chris Gregoire recently floated a plan to replace the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction with a cabinet-level state department of education on the heels of a state budget proposal that would cut funding to every district in the state.

“We need to focus our educational priorities and demand that our elected officials in Olympia fulfill their one paramount duty — and put the money where our kids are,” he said.

When asked after the speech about the comment, and whether it was about Gregoire, he said, “I don’t know the governor, but I don’t think it’s a good use of energy and funds during these economic times.”

When asked if he could name an overarching theme for the new year, he said, “Challenge and opportunity. Finding the opportunity within the challenges.”

Education forums in Federal Way

Federal Way schools Superintendent Robert Neu will host a series of educational events called “Focused Forums” in the coming months. The topics and dates are:

• Feb. 1: Equity and achievement gap/closing the achievement gap

• March 8: Special academic programs, announcements

• May 15: Standards-based education

All forums are at 6 p.m. in the board room of the Educational Service Center, 31405 18th Ave. SE in Federal Way. After an overview of a topic, attendees will break into groups to hold discussions. Each group will make a summary of its conversation and give it out to the other groups. District staff and members of the school board will be there and participate in the group activities. Contact Chris Popich at (253) 945-2013 or cpopich@fwps.org.

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