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Parents fuel academic policy debate in Federal Way

Parents of Thomas Jefferson High School students, along with some members of the school's “Raider Parent Movement,” joined Federal Way Public Schools officials on Aug. 8 to discuss the future of the Middle Years Program (MYP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs at the high school.

Both programs are aimed at providing a more challenging learning environment for students. Under the school district’s academic acceleration policy, any student who hits the minimum score on the High School Proficiency Exam is automatically enrolled in the IB program. This automatic enrollment has caused concern among many parents at TJ. Many parents felt it eliminated freedom of choice for students and family. Others felt it watered down what were supposed to be college-level classes because of the inclusion of more students.

“We met with some folks in June and they brought some concerns to us,” said Dr. Josh Garcia, assistant superintendent, in front of a full room at the TJ cafeteria. “Here’s what they shared: They desired better communication. They requested additional staff training to ensure rigor, and that the necessary training was being provided to staff to teach the classes. They wanted additional information on changes to the master schedule, and why (those changes were made) to promote and support the program. They wanted to know what foreign languages would be offered this coming year.”

One of the perceived issues parents touched on with accelerated academics last year was the “opt out” period for students to get out of the IB classes, something TJ principal Marsha Denton said the school tried to address above and beyond the policy set by the Federal Way School Board.

“When the district and the board approved the accelerated academics policy, they also suggested a time period in which students would be able to opt out of those classes if a family should decide that’s what they wanted to do. Last year, we more than doubled that suggested opt out length,” Denton said.

According to Denton, TJ offered students a seven-week window at the beginning of the school year for students to opt out, and also allowed for a two-week window during the mid-year semester change.

As far as staff training is concerned, Denton said some TJ staff have received additional training over the summer, and that more training will happen in the fall. The schedule changes were necessary, she said, to ensure students would receive the full impact of both the MYP and IB.

“We worked extensively last year, for over half the year, to look at changing our schedule. We were noticing our students weren’t having as much opportunity to take the classes in the (IB) diploma program with a limited six period day. We also realized we needed more opportunity for students to take the classes they were going to need in the MYP program as we were going through application status.”

Denton listed a number of communication efforts TJ has made over the summer, in order to facilitate a better understanding in the community on what these programs mean for students and parents. Among those efforts, she said, are:

• A Principal/Parent Advisory Committee, with applications available at the TJ website (schools.fwps.org/tj)

• The mailing of a letter over the summer notifying parents their student had met the HSPE requirements and would be enrolled in the IB program

• Family communication guides to let parents and students know what’s needed to be successful in either the MYP or IB program, and also how to opt out of the programs

Teaching to the middle and 'Beowulf'

The Aug. 8 meeting followed much the same format as the previous meeting in June. After the presentations by Garcia and Denton, the parents were broken up into conversation groups, with one Federal Way School District representative taking notes of the parents’ concerns.

One of the issues expressed previously, and brought up again Aug. 8, is the syndrome of “teaching to the middle” that the automatic enrollment policy is perceived to generate in teachers. Parent Bill Nyland was given the chance to ask this question again of Garcia.

“They decided not to teach ‘Beowulf’ because not everybody in the class could read that book, so they decided to teach a condensed fifth-grade version,” Nyland said. “So they lowered the expectations for everyone. Can you teach teachers how to do differentiation within their own classroom? Some kids at one level, and some kids at another? That might help everybody.”

Garcia conceded that differentiation is going to exist in the classroom, and that the teachers do need to be able to handle the skills gap they’ll see among students.

“Should there be differentiation in classes? Yes. Are we providing additional training for that to happen? Yes,” Garcia said.

As the school year draws near, Garcia and FWPS officials are trying to make sure parents and students know that they’re committed to making these programs work for everyone.

“The commitment is we’re going to keep working on it, and the commitment is, we’re going to keep providing support,” he said.

Refresher

Middle Years Program (MYP): Officially sanctioned program for students in grades 6-10 to prepare them for rigor and structure of the IB diploma program.

International Baccalaureate (IB): Diploma program that focuses on increased rigor, preparing students for college and beyond while still in high school.

 

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