School Board withholds final approval on middle schools

The Federal Way Public Schools Board of Education affirmed most of the middle school transition team’s recommendations, withholding approval on a few key points that they revisited during a special board meeting last night.

Though most of the document was approved, some transition team members, who drafted the recommendations to facilitate the district’s transition to middle school in 2003, were left feeling a little nervous about the product of their efforts after the board’s decision.

“They kind of blew that out of the water,” said Federal Way Education Association president Mike Lewis. “A lot of teachers are feeling in limbo -— they don’t know where they’re going or if they have to go. Now, we’re back in the stage of forming a team ... to determine a cleaner process to transition.

“When they didn’t affirm that, it was really deflating,” Lewis said. “I’m not sure where I am, where we are. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. So far, I’ve been less than impressed.”

Lewis, who is a member of the high school transition team, said members of that team also are feeling some trepidation about moving forward. “We’ll just keep working on it,” he said.

Board members affirmed an instructional strategies section after the removal of a recommendation that all middle school staff decisions will embrace the philosophies described in a book called “Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century.”

Board President Ann Murphy called the recommendation “Nazi-ish” and “dogmatic” because it seemed to require all schools to adhere to the ideas laid out in the book, which is published by the Carnegie Foundation.

Murphy said the Carnegie Foundation falls on the progressive side of the education continuum compared to a more traditional approach.

She said she didn’t want the district only to hire progressive teachers or adhere to progressive models of education — particularly in areas that charged teachers and staff with coaching students through peer relationships and emotional or psychological growth — at the expense of results-driven curriculae.

Board members particularly disagreed with a recommendation for student advocates who would help children with, among other things, puberty.

“Part of my anxiety about this document was it expanded the role of what public education should be,” Murphy said. “Having staff help children through puberty ... those are very much parental roles.

“I don’t necessarily want my kids’ teachers to step into that role. If they’re having a psychological problem or a peer problem, I will seek out help,” she said.

Although the board voted against the Turning Points statement, it approved the majority of the team’s recommendations, including sections dealing with professional development, curriculum, assessment, safety, governing, grade configuration, recommendations for the fifth grade and cocurricular activities — many of which the team adopted from Turning Points.

The majority of the board voted against a recommendation for building relationships for middle school students and an associated recommendation to create learning groups.

The board was especially concerned about a learning group proposal that recommended teachers have heterogeneous classes with differentiated learning programs as much as possible. After some board confusion about what the word heterogeneous means, members voted against allocating that much extra work to individual teachers.

Murphy said she was upset that the learning groups recommendations did not include an honors program. Murphy’s children currently are in the honors program.

“I’ve experienced heterogeneous grouping with differentiated learning ... students at this age can’t really be as self-directed as they should to make that work,” she said. “The lack of honors has me quite disturbed as well. It’s wrong-headed.”

The board voted against the transition team’s vision in moving toward the middle school program. (See box.)

“I’d like to work on the vision statement,” Murphy said. “It has such broad, far-reaching elements. It’s not the job of the school district to determine if my child is mentally healthy.”

The board also voted against requiring algebra in the eighth grade, opting for a pre-algebra course instead in order to expose students to the higher math before they have to take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in the 10th grade.

Board member Ed Barney wondered why algebra should be required in the eighth grade because of the difficulty level and because students might forget it by the time they would be required to take the course again.

Board member Earl Van Dorien said algebra in the eighth grade might be aiming a little high for a district in which students are struggling in math at all grade levels.

Lewis said he is concerned board members are balancing their expectations for the future of the district on their own children.

“When I listen to the board speak, two or three talk about their own kids and that’s fine because usually that’s your frame of reference,” he said. “But they come across like this is what they do for their kids, so it’s what everyone in the district should do. My concern is are they developing policy based on their own hang-ups or knowledge of the process, or are they truly listening to what their constituents are saying?”

Joan Wrigley, a Nautilus Elementary parent, addressed the board, expressing a hope that members wouldn’t give a cursory glance at the recommendations of the transition teams, who have been researching and gathering information since August, before proceeding with a predetermined plan.

John Wrigley, her husband, addressed the board and urged members not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” as they reviewed the transition team’s recommendations.

As for algebra, he asked the board not to set their expectations too low. “The person who aims at nothing hits it,” he said.

Murphy said the board listens to all sides, but added there were other perspectives the board heard outside that of the transition team.

“We heard from the task force, definitely, but there’s a broader community out there,” she said. “With only two areas under scrutiny, I think we’re doing exactly what the community wants us to do.”

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