Fifth grader Ellie Wagner sits on the floor in the back of the room, waiting for her name to be called.
“I’m a little nervous,” says her father, Jeff Wagner, standing next to her.
At the front of the room, Paula Curtis reaches into a small paper bag, shuffling the pieces of paper around before she pulls the first slip out.
Reading the name aloud on the paper, she hands the slip to her assistant and pulls another name from the bag. And another.
Someone from the audience of more than 100 parents and students sighs in an otherwise quiet room during the public lottery on Monday night at the Educational Services Center.
Out of 143 students who applied for the Federal Way Public Academy (FWPA), only the first 60 incoming sixth graders that Curtis called made it into the school. The other 83 students were placed on a waiting list, again, via the lottery.
“Ellie Wagner, number 37,” Curtis said of the student’s placement on the waiting list. The number signified that Ellie probably won’t get into Federal Way Public Academy, at least for this year. For now, she will move on to either Sequoyah Middle School, or perhaps a Christian school, Wagner said.
He heard about the school from his daughter’s friends who attend the public school.
FWPA provides students a rigorous, challenging academic program. The school’s mission is to provide a college preparatory curriculum for students in grades six through 10. About 300 students attend the small school each year and are placed through the Choice Enrollment program via a lottery. Though the school is open to all students, more than 60 percent of those who apply on average are turned away.
“We went to a parent information night … I feel like it’s the best choice for her,” he said, noting the school would provide Ellie with the academic challenge that she needs. “She’s intelligent.”
Before the names were drawn, Ellie said she would be “sort of upset” if she didn’t make it into the school.
“I like the level of learning and the curriculum,” she said of FWPA.
Wagner noted that Federal Way Public Schools should set a standard for students to get into FWPA, instead of a lottery system.
“I’d like to see something that was maybe a test to get in,” he said. “But fair is fair – we are all paying taxes.”
However, other parents, such as Alissa Frederick, said the lottery is “fair.”
“I like that it doesn’t matter what race you are, or what income level, you get a fair chance,” Frederick said, adding, “I don’t think it is possible to open the school up to all students, it works well because of the low class sizes and that students have to want to be there.”
Nevertheless, she was still anxious for her daughter to make it into FWPA, as this year was her second time trying to get into the school.
Last year, her daughter – then a 5th grader at Rainier View Elementary – made it onto the waiting list at number 30.
“I was crushed,” Frederick said, noting she was concerned with the communication issues between school administration and teachers, and “frequent principal changes” at her local middle school.
This year, Fredrick said she was even more anxious to get her daughter into FWPA as a 7th grader. She said her daughter “loves the idea that teachers talk to the students and they work on the curriculum together, rather than the one-way education system most schools need to use just because of time and class size constraints.”
Through the lottery this year, her daughter made it to the 11th spot on the waiting list. However, there are currently no openings for 7th graders, she said.
“I wish there were more schools like it,” Fredrick said. “It is the main reason I voted yes to the charter school initiative. The current education system is broken, and it is schools like FWPA that are thinking outside the box and making great advances.”
A hidden gem
“Dot, dot, dot does not mean sarcasm,” said FWPA English teacher Mark Klumpsenhower, as he taught a classroom of seventh graders about the use of an ellipsis on a recent afternoon. “It does not translate well into drama – if you want that, you can go online and find an emoticon. It means you left words out intentionally or you got interrupted.”
Students laughed as they took turns reading phrases on the whiteboard, including, “I am so cool” and “No … I am.”
In the hallway, a group of students in a drama class recited lines from the play “No One Calls Me Mutt Anymore,” while history students in another classroom learn about the beginnings of capitalism during a Socratic seminar.
Green leafy plants and wooden benches in an outdoor-like setting align the hallway to the main office.
“People often learn about our school because they go online and see the scores,” said Kurt Lauer, who has been principal at FWPA for 10 years.
Last year, for example, FWPA scored a first in the district: 100 percent of FWPA’s 10th-grade students met standard in four of five subjects; in the fifth, biology, 93.8 percent of the school’s 10th graders met standard.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education also recognized FWPA in 2013 for overall excellence. This award goes to schools whose overall two-year test score average puts them in the top 5 percent of schools statewide.
Compared to districtwide scores across all subjects over the past four-plus years, FWPA students in grades six through 10 far outscored their peers.
But Lauer said he “rarely speaks about scores that much. I’m not a big banner waver on test scores. I want students to do well, but we want students to learn the curriculum at a deeper level.”
School district spokesperson Deb Stenberg also noted that comparing FWPA’s test scores to other district schools is “like comparing apples to oranges.” She said a more appropriate comparison would be similar programs in the area, such as Lake Washington’s International Community School and Bellevue’s International School. Compared to those programs, FWPA’s scores start out a bit lower, but by the time students reach the 10th grade at FWPA, their scores are the same or higher than those of these elite schools.
Lauer added the biggest results of student success show in what students do after FWPA. About 50 percent of students go into the International Baccalaureate program at Thomas Jefferson and 30 percent go into Running Start. Some students go on to Ivy League schools, including Harvard and Yale universities.
One reason why FWPA students are so successful is because the school’s curriculum is focused, Lauer said, noting teachers and students “dive deeply” into subjects.
“At Federal Way Public Academy, they don’t just meet the standards – they understand the standards,” said Tina Williamson, whose children Ryan and Kelly McCandless attend FWPA.
Ryan, a 9th grader, struggles in math and did not pass the End of Course exam in algebra last year. But his teachers have met with him after school and during lunch to “dive deep” into algebra to ensure that he grasps the concepts.
“They just tried different approaches until he began to understand it,” Williamson said. “This year, all of a sudden, you start seeing a light going on and he’s grasping it.”
Many students also succeed at FWPA because of the strong partnerships between home and school, teachers’ high expectations and the small school environment, Lauer added.
“It’s a small school and it’s able to reach more people,” said Marquis Waright, a 10th grader at the school. “We’re not bound by any age or grade barrier.”
Delyla Vue, also a 10th grader, said some schools form cliques, wherein people stay “with their own kind.” But at FWPA, “we converse with each other very politely. I’ve been to many schools in my lifetime, none of them have the feeling it does here of just being comfortable, with no peer pressure.”
Williamson noted the students who succeed at FWPA are those who want to be there.
“It’s not just for brainiacs,” she said. “It’s the culture of this school that makes it what it is. It is a different social atmosphere, it’s a small community, it’s a family. It takes a community to raise a child and that’s the community that’s helping me to raise my children.”
She said FWPA is a “hidden gem” in Federal Way, “but the unfortunate part is that not more people can participate in a small school environment like this.”
The school board voted to implement FWPA in 1998, after many parents showed demand for the school and said it was important to have a variety of educational models to choose from.
“Federal Way Public Academy is an excellent example of this district’s bold efforts to provide innovative programs to meet the needs of all students,” said Superintendent Rob Neu in an email. “FWPA confirmed that there was and is a demand for academically challenging programs. FWPS is committed to provide such programs for all students, in a variety of ways and settings.”
FWPA began in 1999 with 120 students in portable classrooms at Illahee Middle School, and eventually moved to its own campus.
The district considered options for expanding FWPA in 2005, however the cost of expanding versus the number of students it would benefit didn’t justify the investment, Stenberg said, noting the decision was made in an environment of state funding cuts.
However, Neu said the district is always open to ideas.
He said FWPA and many other district programs, including TAF Academy, the Cambridge and STEM programs, “are all examples of the district’s openness to implementing promising programs for our students. We are open to ideas from all stakeholders to provide the best education possible for our students.”