‘Mad as hell’ taxpayer and parents criticize school district

Parents and community members were in vociferous attendance again during the Federal Way School Board's Nov. 12 meeting.

Parents and community members were in vociferous attendance again during the Federal Way School Board’s Nov. 12 meeting.

Once again, the focus of those in attendance was mostly directed at the district’s standards based grading (SBG) system — although one “mad as hell” taxpayer let the board know what he thinks of their management of his money in recent months and years.

“I’m a taxpayer in Federal Way, and I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” Bill Pirkle said. “I’ve been attending school board meetings for eight years now, and nothing has changed. High school dropout rate, kids reading at their own level, doing math at their own level, kids doing science at their own level. None of that’s changed in eight years.”

“All I see are grand initiatives and grand plans which confuse everybody and are simply distracting,” Pirkle continued. “And now I find out that the school board members are traipsing around the world, visiting other countries. … I assume you’re trying to learn how to improve our schools. Well, it’s simple. If you don’t know how to improve our schools, just admit that and resign. If you do know how to improve our schools, then why are you traipsing around the world on our tax dollars? That’s a simple question that you should be able to answer.”

In regards to “traipsing around the world,” Pirkle was referring to the board and superintendent’s recent travels to Europe as part of the Global Learning Initiative. In addition to defending the grading system, the school district has vigorously defended all travels related to the initiative as necessary for gaining insight and making connections that benefit students.

The initial motivation for replacing the traditional grading system with SBG was to improve the district’s graduation rate, which currently hovers just above 70 percent. SBG went into effect in fall 2011, and sparked a public debate over its strengths and shortcomings.

Pirkle said that fundamentally, he thinks the school district’s problem is that much of the changes in recent years are all “motion” with very little progress.

“You’re confusing motion with progress. All we see here is motion. A new grading system, the global initiative, that’s all motion. There is no progress in terms of high school dropout rates, kids doing work at their own level, we don’t see those scores improving. Motion is what we’ve got here, and not progress,” he concluded.

Parent Camille Perry said the difficulties with SBG and its current algorithms are having a definitive impact on her pocketbook.

“We have a 16-year-old son who’s preparing to get his drivers license. We told him that he can get his license if he qualifies for the Good Student Discount through our insurance company,” she said. “My son, as of today…he has a 4,4,1,3,2,4,4. So, in his grade book, he has an F today. If you average those scores together, that’s a 3.1. That qualifies him for the discount and saves us a little over $600. We need a grading system that accurately reflects the achievements of the students.”

Parent Leah Gillis has three high schoolers in Federal Way Public Schools, and she feels the district’s constant tinkering with the grading system in recent years is threatening her children’s ability to attend college.

“Listening to some of the comments from the board was probably the most frustrating part,” Gillis said, referring to her experience watching the playback of the Oct. 29 board meeting. “It was sitting there for two hours and twenty minutes … and hearing, ‘Oh, well we haven’t had any proof that this is going to affect students getting scholarships or getting into college.’ If you think, for one second, that’s true, then you’re sadly mistaken.”

Gillis continued.

“Or you have just not filled out a college application lately, or tried to get a merit scholarship,” she said. “It’s right there in black and white. The first thing they ask you is your GPA, that’s one of the very first things…I’m going to have three kids in college. I’m going to need those merit scholarships. I’m going to need for those applications to show that they have the best grades.”

“We’ve been patient,” she added, referencing her perception of board and district administrators’ remarks in previous weeks. “My son comes home this year, he’s a senior this year, and he says, ‘Mom, I’ve been in high school for four years now, and this is the third grading system we’ve had.’ So give us a little bit of credit, and don’t just say, ‘Be patient.’ We want change, we want it for the benefit of our students…We want them to be able to get that diploma and for it to mean something.”

School board’s defense

Click here to read about the board’s response to recent criticisms at the Nov. 12 board meeting.

FYI: Grading system and public forums

According to the district, SBG allows for a more precise level of learning by requiring students to meet a number of “power standards.” The system also replaces letter grades with a 1-through-4 scale. However, teachers have had a difficult time explaining the grading system to parents and students who don’t understand it.

The district is hosting forums at Federal Way middle schools for parents to learn more about the new grade book and how grades are calculated.

Upcoming forums:

• Kilo Middle School: 6 p.m. Nov. 20

• Lakota Middle School: 6 p.m. Nov. 21

• Sacajawea Middle School: 6 p.m. Nov. 25

• Educational Service Center, 33330 8th Ave. S.: 5 p.m. Dec. 3. The school board will host a study session.