Federal Way schools stir buzz with rigorous course policy

Two recent reports by the Huffington Post and local NPR affiliate KPLU highlighted Federal Way Public Schools’ policy of requiring any student who meets standards to enroll in a rigorous Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or Cambridge program.

In both reports, some people criticized Federal Way for a “one size fits all” approach to education, while others lauded the school district’s efforts to raise the bar and hold students, parents and teachers to higher standards.

The difficult courses are intended to get students ready for college and beyond. The courses require more time and commitment than other high school classes.

Since the policy was implemented in fall 2010, enrollment in these courses has increased from 30 percent to 70 percent. The policy has also increased the number of students of color involved in these programs.

Outside of these quantifiable numbers, Superintendent Rob Neu feels the increased challenge to students ends up being a reward for the students themselves.

“The students have the capacity to be successful in these classes,” Neu said, calling the policy a success. “Students that traditionally wouldn’t have been in these classes now are. And because they are, they’re seeing themselves differently because they have been successful.”

Reflecting that belief is Shrae Hogan, a Todd Beamer senior featured in the KPLU report. Hogan classified herself as a “senior who gets all right grades, and just wanted to graduate high school.” Hogan said she had a difficult time at first in the more difficult classes, but then one day had an “a-ha moment.”

“Then something clicked,” she said in the KPLU report. “In order to get it, you have to want to get it.”

Hogan said she began actively seeking out the successful students in class and learning from them. Outside of her own drive and desire to succeed, Hogan also said her mother was an important factor in making sure she passed the difficult classes the district now required her to take.

For Neu, parental involvement is an important part of making sure students succeed in these difficult courses. He said parents need to support their children at home emotionally, just letting them know they’re there for them. Secondly, he said, if the students and parents need support, to just make sure they reach out to the district and take advantage of the support apparatus in place.

The Huffington Post article includes comments from Michael Scuderi, a parent of the Thomas Jefferson Raider Parent Movement. Scuderi criticized Federal Way schools for essentially dropping the policy on parents and students alike — and perhaps creating a situation where students were set up to fail.

Neu conceded that implementation of the program probably could have been done differently.

“This was change for a lot of people, and change is hard,” Neu said. “We could have done a better job at communicating and working with the kids and their families through that initial implementation. It’s like a software adoption. There’s glitches, there’s bugs in the program. We had those glitches. We learned from them, and I think next year is going to be a lot smoother.”

Neu is confident the program will continue to succeed, now that students, parents and staff all have a year under their belts.

“We now have a whole cadre of students who have been placed in these higher academic rigor programs,” he said. “It’s our new norm, it’s our new culture. The bar has been raised.”

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