Forum engages Federal Way parents on achievement gap in schools

Linda Brown had what she described as a “wayward child,” and felt that the Federal Way School District was not doing its part to keep his absenteeism in check. She wondered why there was not a truant officer out finding her son and other wayward children.

“We need, as parents, the extra support to make this happen,” she said, referring to ensuring her child’s success.

Brown was speaking to a roomful of school district officials, teachers, fellow parents and a school board member. And her criticism was welcomed.

The district held its first “Focus Forum,” a series of topic-oriented forums with Superintendent Robert Neu and district officials, Tuesday at district headquarters, 31405 18th Ave. S. The topic of the night was the “achievement gap” — the disparities in achievement between ethnic, racial and economic student populations.

Efforts to close the gap began in 2001, said Alma Dansby, executive director of equity and achievement. Former superintendent Tom Murphy noticed disproportions in discipline, study habits, and graduation and dropout rates.

The district created the “Closing the Achievement Gap” document to focus on English as a second language students, cultural education for staff and enhancing teaching. Other goals included creating relationships with parents at Title 1 schools and different classroom observation techniques.

After Dansby’s presentation, attendees — at least 50 altogether — were broken up into smaller groups to ask questions and further discuss the achievement gap.

Brown’s group was headed by Deputy Superintendent Mark Davidson and Assistant Superintendent of Business Affairs Sally McLean. School Board President Tony Moore observed and took notes.

Brown was told that the district does not have truant officers on staff, but it does call parents when a student misses school.

Pam Ashe, who described herself as an intervention specialist at Federal Way High School, said she often goes out to students’ homes to do outreach, but sometimes addresses are wrong. That kind of a mix-up can stop information from getting to parents, she said.

Several factors affect the achievement gap — the role of parents versus teachers, the differences in achievement between races, and a student’s home life.

“We can get control over the body, but we can’t always get control over the obstacles in the brain,” Ashe said, referring to troubles some students face.

Students were also in on the discussion. Federal Way Public Academy sophomores Varsha Govinduraju and Racquel Arceo talked about student acheivement. Govinduraju said that academic achievement — a district policy that enrolls students in Advanced Placement classes based on state test scores and their own volition — is not well liked.

“For me, I feel like the bar is dropping,” she said.

Both Govinduraju and Arceo said they were happy to have been invited to the forum and would like to attend more in the future. However, they felt their concerns over some academic programs were not fully heard.

“I felt like some people were closed minded to some of the students’ concerns,” Govinduraju said.

“I agree, they had already formed their opinion early on,” Arceo said.

Though the discussion in the small group covered several topics, Davidson thought that it was an overall success.

"It was seeing people work hard to say things in a way that's civil and to promote some good dialogue," he said.

After the small group discussion, the larger group reconvened. Superintendent Robert Neu said that the discussions that took place in the smaller groups — which were recorded by proctors — would be “digested” by district officials.

“This is back and forth,” Neu told attendees. “This (discussion) doesn’t just start and stop here.”

Learn more

The next Focus Forum will take place at 6 p.m. March 15 at Todd Beamer High School, 35999 16th Ave. S., and will cover special education programs. The final forum of this school year will be at 6 p.m. May 17, also at Todd Beamer, and will focus on the district’s “standards-based education” policy.

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