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'Hunger Games' of Federal Way
More than 100 Federal Way parents and students anxiously awaited the results of the lottery that would determine the fate of their children on Monday. The lottery is to get into the Federal Way Public Academy (FWPA). FWPA’s mission is “to provide students with a rigorous and challenging academic program and to provide a college preparatory curriculum in grades six through 10.”
When it comes to academic achievement, FWPA is the shining gem of Federal Way and perhaps all of South Puget Sound. In 2013, every 10th Grader at FWPA passed the reading and writing high school proficiency test compared, with 82.7 percent (reading) and 85.7 percent (writing) for the rest of the Federal Way school district. In algebra, 96 percent of FWPA students passed the end of course exam, compared with 57 percent for the school district.
From a student-to-teacher ratio perspective, it costs less to run FWPA than a comparable school in the district. In terms of lower costs and higher scores, FWPA is crushing it.
But, instead of making this the shining beacon of Federal Way to attract high caliber students and families, we turn away more than 60 percent of interested students every year. Why have we not eliminated the lottery and allowed every interested student and family to attend FWPA?
There is a common misconception that FWPA requires some kind of special qualification. This is not true. Anyone can enter the FWPA lottery. Motivation is all that is required. This is a school for students who are ready and willing to work especially hard at academics, in preparation for college.
Not everyone wants to attend FWPA. The academic rigor and the hours of daily homework are not for everyone. Moreover, the absence of a sports program is a problem for some students. Furthermore, there are many wonderful educational programs within the district for children with differing interests and goals.
However, students who want to dedicate themselves to a rigorous college prep environment will find at FWPA what they are looking for.
Some worry that we should not be separating highly motivated students from the general student population. However, our district has many programs in place for advanced students: GATE, IB, Cambridge, TAFA, and Highly Capable programs. FWPA offers a small-school environment with an all-day focus on college preparation. Parents who believe this is what their children need, and are ready for, are frustrated to see this option based on a lottery.
There are also concerns that expanding FWPA would be too difficult or too expensive. FWPA began in 1999 with 120 students in three double-wide portable classrooms in the Illahee Middle School parking lot. It is not difficult. It is merely a matter of political will. If the school board votes to expand the program, we can find a way to make it work. The administrators can decide whether they should move the current FWPA to a bigger facility or keep a small school environment by stamping out FWPA 2, 3, and 4 across different campuses in the city. We are about to build a brand new $50 million building for Federal Way High School. There is money. There are options. And worst case, there are parking lots and double-wide portable classrooms.
But, should we as a city really care about the plight of these 80-plus students every year who are rejected from the FWPA lottery? Does this really affect our city in a meaningful way?
When you ask the residents of Somerset in Bellevue why they moved into that neighborhood, the answer is almost universal - the great schools. There are many families in the Puget Sound area who place a high priority on the quality of schools when choosing where they will live.
We need these families. Meanwhile, a significant number of these families appear to choose to live elsewhere because of perceived concerns about our school district.
Herein lies the irony. In FWPA, we have a truly fabulous school. Many families are clamoring to get their children into this school. We have the means to lure them here with the quality of our schools. But, instead of expanding the capacity, we turn away two-thirds of those who apply for admission.
Unlike in the book “The Hunger Games,” we are not subjects of some authoritarian regime. We govern ourselves. This lottery is our own doing. We get to determine how we want to run our own schools by the board members that we elect. There is no reason that we should be turning away students who seek a rigorous college prep school in our city. Instead, we should be expanding it and making it the focal point of why Federal Way is a great place to live. It just takes a vote of the board.
We urge the citizens of Federal Way to rally around this shining beacon in our city. Let’s find a way to expand the FWPA program so that every student who seeks a strong college preparatory program can be included. An opportunity to achieve the highest level of academic excellence should not be left to chance. Let it be a call to the families in our region clamoring for a FWPA-style education, Federal Way has a place for you and your children. And it’s not a matter of luck.