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Three Federal Way schools score high on state achievement index

Three Federal Way schools have won awards given out in a joint effort by the state Board of Education and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The schools each won a Washington State Achievement Award in three separate categories. Mark Twain Elementary won for narrowing the achievement gap, the Federal Way Public Academy won for overall excellence, as did Mirror Lake, in a category for schools with high populations of gifted students.

The three Federal Way schools were among 186 around the state that won. The awards will be presented at a ceremony on April 27.

The awards were given based on how schools scored on the state Board of Education’s Washington Achievement Index. The index keeps track of outcomes on state tests among various student groups and on the achievement gap — the difference in academic achievement between ethnic, racial and socioeconomic groups.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the awards are important because “by lifting up our most successful schools, the Washington Achievement Award shines a light on some of the best practices that are making that success possible.”

The Public Academy, Mirror Lake and Mark Twain all employed different tactics to earn an award.

The Public Academy is consistently ranked as one of the top schools in the state. The school is a little more than a decade old, but has developed a rigorous approach to education fundamentals. The school is also different from many in the district. Students are accepted into the school through a lottery (anyone can enter the lottery), and it’s much smaller at 300 students than other middle schools.

Principal Kurt Lauer explained that students in sixth and seventh grades are treated to extended classes in math and reading (outside those two subjects, they take only history and science) and have two main teachers.

“It’s all core classes. We don’t have physical education during the school day, or electives,” he said. He added that students can express creativity through science projects, too, and the courses change heading into eighth, ninth and tenth grades.

But strong focus on fundamental courses contributes to success. The model has paid off: students earn near 100 percent passing — 10 to 20 points higher than the district-wide average — on state tests. In 2009-10, every tenth-grader passed the state reading test.

“We want really rigorous education for the kids,” Lauer said.

The focus on fundamentals at Mark Twain Elementary is similar, but with a different student population. Mark Twain’s minority and free and reduced lunch (an indicator of poverty) student populations are well above the district average — 88 percent and 80 percent, respectively. The school also has a large population of English learners.

Principal Doug Rutherford said that students receive instruction in math and English in intensive 90-minute blocks. There’s an emphasis on reading, with AmeriCorps and community volunteers reading with students. Some students even give up recess to read.

“The focus is reading, writing and arithmetic,” he said. “With a school like ours that has a very diverse school population, we can’t make excuses. We have to make sure all of our kids are succeeding.”

Mirror Lake received an award in the same category as the Public Academy, but was among a group of schools with a high population of gifted students. The school has two separate classes — one for second- and third-graders, another for fourth- and fifth-graders — comprised entirely of gifted students. These students would already meet state standards for their grade level, and therefore would be able to participate in what Principal Maggie O’Sullivan termed “next level” learning.

O’Sullivan said the school is not just about identifying gifted students. She said Mirror Lake creates a “pathway to success,” which students follow after graduation to other specialized district programs, like International Baccalaureate.

“We really look to make sure that all students have access to higher level programs,” she said. “We think about our overall program, which is meeting the needs of each individual child.”

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