Like many parents and community leaders, I was disappointed when I read the Washington Board of Education’s ratings of our schools (a rating system created by our state Legislature in 2009).
As a parent, I am concerned about the education my three children will receive.
As a business and property owner, I am concerned about the economic impacts of having a poorly rated education system.
Neither families nor employers want to locate in areas with poorly rated schools. Building a performing arts center, a Crystal Palace, a light rail line, or even the Taj Mahal in Federal Way won’t compensate for a poor school system.
Reasonable people, including the school district, may argue about the fairness of the board's rating system. However, Federal Way Public Schools doesn’t score much better on the U.S. News rating of high schools, or on an assortment of other generally accepted rating systems.
Our state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) rates our district below the state average in almost every achievement measurement.
Having personally spent dozens of hours volunteering in the school district, I will be the first to acknowledge that our teachers and administrators don’t have it easy.
While our district scores below average on academic achievement, we also receive below average funding ($9,451 per student vs. $9,760). In addition, we face above average poverty rates (56 percent vs. 45 percent), with nearly 64 percent of our students being minorities (vs. only 40 percent statewide), representing 105 different languages.
While our district faces significant challenges, there is no excuse for accepting the status quo. As parents, business owners and community leaders, we need to demand and support improvement.
Here are five improvements I would institute immediately.
1. The only school in our district receiving an “A” grade was the Federal Way Public Academy. Despite its success, this school uses a lottery system to admit just 60 new students each year (from a district with 21,000 students). The size of this program should be dramatically increased to meet demand.
2. The two elementary schools receiving a “F” grade (Wildwood and Sunnycrest elementary schools) should be shut down and the students sent to other schools. Not only are these schools failing to educate our students (based on the board’s ratings), they are also dragging down the community. Who wants to move to a neighborhood with one of the 150 lowest performing schools in the state? Maybe one of these buildings could be used to house an expanded Public Academy.
3. Create a school (or a portion of a school) dedicated to the language needs of our 3,800 students whose families speak Spanish. To prevent segregation, this program would be choice enrollment (similar to the Public Academy) and would welcome both native Spanish speakers as well as students interested in a Spanish language immersion program. A similar program could be offered to our families speaking Korean (610), Russian (604) and Ukrainian (498).
4. Our students, especially low-income students, need incentives to perform. As part of a recent PTA fundraiser, my 7-year-old daughter was willing to do anything to sell 10 containers of overpriced cookie dough, so she could receive a trinket that could have been purchased at the Dollar Store. Her class also received a pizza party for meeting their sales quota. All she got for passing her power standards (the equivalent of getting an “A”) was a smiley face on a piece of paper from her teacher. I’m not suggesting cash bribes, but maybe a little extra recess time would do the trick.
5. We need a school board, city council, chamber of commerce, and most importantly, parents, who will get mad as hell about the performance of our schools. Not mad at the teachers, staff or administrators, but rather mad at ourselves for allowing this to happen. We need people who have the courage to support difficult solutions for our difficult problems. We need parents and community members who are willing to sacrifice their time to support our teachers. Taking this to the next level, we need to create a culture where parents understand that their involvement is critical to their child’s success. Creating this culture will be difficult, but not impossible.
While these improvements may sound extreme, they are not intended as an attack against our district’s fine teachers, staff or administrators. District employees have a very difficult job and are constantly faced with “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” decisions.
However, as Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Regardless of the district’s actions, I will again enroll my children at Sherwood Forest elementary (which received a “D” rating) and I will continue to volunteer time each week in an effort to make a difference in the education my community receives (and to preserve the value of my property).
I hope you will do the same.