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Federal Way parents question merits of new academic acceleration policy

Thomas Jefferson High School parents aired their concerns with Federal Way Public Schools representatives on Monday over a new rigorous academic policy.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) program for high school juniors and seniors, and its precursor Middle Years Program (MYP) for grades 6-10, prepare students for a higher standard of classes and classwork. After the academic acceleration policy was implemented in 2010, all students who qualify are placed in these advanced classes.

The policy has many parents and students upset. Since fall 2010, enrollment in these courses has increased from 30 percent to 70 percent. The policy has also increased the number of minorities involved in these programs.

The conversations

A crowd of about 100 people gathered June 13 in the small drama theater at Thomas Jefferson High School.

“The intent of this meeting is to start a dialogue,” said Michael Scuderi, a member of the TJ Raiders Parent Movement (RPM). “We’re not going to get everything solved tonight. But we’re going to start a dialogue to work together, to find a solution, to find the best possible solutions. That’s why we’re all here.”

During the breakout discussions among parents, a lot of revealing information was shared about the new IB policy and its effect on students and teachers alike.

“I’m really disappointed with everyone being put in IB,” said Shawn Herrick, whose son attends TJ. “Because of discussions I’ve had with my son, the quality of the talks in the classes have gone downhill dramatically. He has one class where no one will speak up.”

Herrick continued: “In ninth and 10th grade, he was in pre-IB classes. He says the discussions he had were excellent. Everyone was talking and there was a lot of feedback. This year, he is basically the only one speaking...He is not learning, he is not gaining anything this year. His educational gain this year is about zero, and I’m very disappointed.”

Herrick said that the broad approach to the IB program’s implementation has led to some students being put in these classes who have no interest in being there.

“There’s a student that’s in an IB class that doesn’t know what the Fourth of July is,” she said. “This was not a kid from another country, he just didn’t care. He didn’t want to be there. And he’s in this IB class, and he didn’t know what the Fourth of July stood for. That, to me, is appalling.”

Karen Martin, another member of the RPM, said she felt teachers may have been left in the lurch with the new policy.

“Teachers say it: ‘We don’t have time to do this well,’” she said. “The other part of that is in that implementation and in that expectation of the teachers...there are teachers who have not bought into this.”

Martin said the disparity between teachers’ level of training could have a negative effect on the students. She cited her own children, saying one was in a class with a teacher who was familiar with the program. In that class, her child worked hard for a good grade and was proud of that grade. Her other child was in the same class and received a 100 percent for the class, but was unhappy with that result because it lacked a challenging and rewarding experience to get the perfect grade.

Teaching to the middle?

The most dominant theme that arose from discussion groups at Monday’s meeting was that the policy forces teachers to “teach to the middle.” This means the advanced students suffer from lack of challenge and stimulation, while students who struggle are unable to receive the proper help, parents said.

One solution offered by the parents was to teach students in different “tracks” — in other words, teaching the advanced students one way, the lower end students another way, and the middle students yet another way.

Dr. Josh Garcia, superintendent for teaching and learning with FWPS, addressed the concerns raised by the parents, and attempted to explain the new policy and its implementation.

“We all want the same thing. We all want a world class education for our kids, for every kid,” he said. “Are they all going to achieve at the same level? Absolutely not. That’s not what we’re saying with academic acceleration. We’re saying that you have a choice as a family. It is your choice.”

Garcia conceded that in the past, Federal Way schools had limited access to the upper level classes. At times, the district even made students and families “jump through...artificial barriers to get there,” he said.

“We had a significant problem (at TJ),” Garcia said. “Enrollment in our IB program was very low for as large a size as the school was. There was approximately 140 kids between two grades for a school that was over 2,100 kids.”

In addressing the concerns of “teaching to the middle,” Garcia said there are some things that will continue to separate students, among them upper-level math and science classes.

As the meeting drew to a close, Garcia posed his own questions to the large group of concerned parents.

“What kind of criteria would you like me to use to sort kids?” he asked. “If it’s teacher recommendation, what happens when your child doesn’t get that teacher recommendation? Is that really what you want?”

Learn more

Scuderi, in a post-meeting interview, felt the meeting was a good first step in the right direction.

“It was definitely a productive meeting,” he said. “We worked for nine months to get to this point. We’re just all concerned about making this the best program possible and having everyone involved buy into it.”

Scuderi said one element he hopes to hear from is the teachers themselves because they’re such a large part of the process. He said it would be good to know what teachers are thinking when it comes to these programs.

A second meeting regarding this issue is tentatively scheduled for the second week of July, Scuderi said.

For more information on the Accelerated Academics Policy, visit www.fwps.org/info/advanced/faq.html.

 

 

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