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School chief vows goals won't be derailed

By JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

The concept behind the district’s new high school instructional structure was simple: “You can’t motivate a child you don’t know well,” said Todd Beamer High School principal Carol Eberhart.

The result became a high school unlike any other in the district, and a methodology that will change the face of public education in Federal Way.

Schools throughout the district this year will be following Beamer High’s lead and implementing widespread structural and instructional changes that will focus on community and relationship building, and “13th year” preparedness.

“All of the high schools are looking at different instructional strategies. All of us are looking at different ways to structure our schools,” said Eberhart. “There will be some differences with all of the high schools in Federal Way.”

At Beamer High, differences will include splitting the school into three academies, each numbering less than 450 students. Students will also take four classes each semester, for a total of eight per year rather than the traditional six full-year courses. The “mini-school” and four-class format will enable each of the school’s teachers to work with no more than 90 students a day, creating a small community environment within the larger school.

Not all of the high schools will execute the district’s changing focus in the same manner as Beamer High, but all will implement “a few givens,” Eberhart said.

Among the givens is an attitude superintendent Tom Murphy characterized during last his state of the district address last Wednesday as daring to “believe that all students can and must be successful learners.”

Conventional wisdom argues that when poverty rises student performance declines, Murphy said during his remarks at a Federal Way Chamber of Commerce meeting at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club. But, with 40 percent of the district’s elementary school students qualifying for free or reduced lunches this year — an all-time high for Federal Way Public Schools — elementary school students’ performance is continuing to improve.

The majority of the district’s minority students passed the fourth-grade reading portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test last year, rising above state averages and prior years’ performances.

Even 62-percent of the district’s most economically disadvantaged students passed the reading portion of the fourth-grade WASL, in comparison to 45 percent statewide.

“This is what all the research tells you is isn’t possible,” said Murphy.

Focused literacy programs and targeted one-on-one learning strategies have already shown success in the district’s elementary schools. Improving lagging junior high and high school test scores has become imperative.

Combining smaller group education and a sense of community with increased accountability and adult advocacy, Murphy hopes to “turn the tide” of public education in Federal Way by removing the traditional camps of the “coulds” and “could nots.”

If 83-percent of the district’s 10th-graders passed the listening portion of the WASL last year, “we think that is good, but we think 100 percent is better,” Murphy said.

There is no easy answer to achieving 100-percent student success, but a smattering of schools have already implemented changes that have led to record-breaking results.

Former Illahee Junior High School principal Randy Kaczor, next year’s principal of Federal Way High, led 62 percent of Illahee’s seventh-grade class to a passing score on the reading portion of the WASL, including 100 percent of Illahee’s Native American students — up from 50 percent the previous year. African-American students made similar gains, moving up from 17 percent the previous year to 46 percent this year. Scores by Hispanic students leapt from 7 percent meeting standard the year before to 50 percent last year.

“That’s why I embrace public education, because we take every single kid who comes through the door and we embrace them,” said Kaczor. “We have expectations for our students, but they are expectations that are about good citizenship and good performance.”

Illahee’s WASL results are especially remarkable in a district that posted a 48-percent passing rate in the seventh-grade reading portion.

“If it happens some places, it can happen everywhere,” said Murphy. “That is our commitment to you.”

Test scores aren’t administrators’ only concern. Preparing students to perform at college level, regardless of their future plans, is a necessity Eberhart and Kaczor will emphasize this fall.

From expanded vocational programs to rigorous core academics and electives, Federal Way high school administrators hope to prepare their students to stand at the “head of the line” after graduation, Eberhart said.

Still, the outlook isn’t all rosy. State funding cuts of as much as $6 million to 8 million are expected to be handed down by the Legislature this year, leaving administrators struggling to trim a budget that gains fewer tax dollars from levies than any other district in the county.

“I will not endorse the governor’s budget,” said Murphy. “Now is not the time to turn our back on 10 years of promises made to our children. We can not turn our backs on our children because the state is in a budget crisis.”

Despite the state’s fiscal woes, Murphy emphasized that administrators will “figure out a way” to make the district’s goal of 100 percent success a reality.

“Democracy is based upon the premise that everyone can be successful,” Murphy said. “We can not take that away from those that most need our help.”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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