School board approves competency-based model for two Federal Way alternative schools

The Federal Way school board unanimously voted to waive standard graduation requirements for two alternative high schools at its regular meeting Tuesday.

The school district will replace those requirements with a system that will better suit students’ needs.

Career Academy at Truman High School and the Open Doors Youth Reengagement program, formerly known as Acceleration Academy, will instead teach students through a competency-based model.

Learning Improvement Officer Dr. Ginger Callison said the most compelling reason to look at this system is because, despite the yearly increase of students graduation from alternative schools, the district is still not reaching 20 percent of its students.

“We will not be satisfied until 100 percent of our scholars complete high school,” Callison said at the board meeting. “Additionally, though we’re working on increasing our attendance, on any given day, about 9 percent of our high school students are missing from school.”

Students who attend Career Academy are credit deficient by about two or more years. They’re usually 16 to 19 years old, while Open Doors students range from 16 to 21 and have usually already dropped out of high school and are seeking ways to get back on track. Many of these students have dealt with trauma.

“We need to find a way to minimize barriers,” Callison said. “The scholars that attend our alternative programs are faced with life challenges that many of our scholars are not. We have pregnant and parenting teens. We have scholars that need to work to support their families. We have homeless scholars, and I could go on, but they wake up in the morning and they face additional barriers above and beyond what many of our scholars do.”

On average, students at Career Academy earn between three to six credits a year, while Open Doors students earn one-and-half to six credits per year. The state requires students who have entered ninth grade after July 2015 to earn 24 credits by the time they have graduated.

Under these requirements, Career Academy’s four-year graduation rate is at 28 percent, while Open Doors graduates 5.7 percent of students.

“We believe that by making this change, that we’re going to get our scholars not some paper diploma but a diploma that actually says that they have been given the internships, the competencies and the skills they need to be successful,” Superintendent Tammy Campbell said, noting that Highline School District’s alternative school’s graduation rate rose to 70 percent after implementing a competency-based model.

Prior to recommending the change, staff at Career Academy and Open Doors asked for students’ input: what they were missing from the regular school system and what worked well and not as well at their alternative school.

“They need flexibility in how they do their learning,” Career Academy Principal Christine Corbley said. “They’ll have the opportunity to show mastery in a variety of contexts, and we’ll be building personal learning plans for every single student based on what their needs are and helping them meet those goals and objectives.”

Corbley said the school will continue to have high expectations that each student is college or career ready upon graduation.

The school district will use the Summit Learning competencies, which are closely aligned to the Common Core Standards and Next Gen Science standards, and have been vetted by Stanford University. Students will be graded on an eight-point rubric that will allow teachers to identify areas in which students need to improve, as well as communicate that more clearly to parents.

“Right now, when I look at a transcript, I have to explain to a family why a scholar has taken algebra multiple times, health multiple times but really not knowing why it is that they didn’t pass,” Open Doors Principal Ashley Barker said. “Did they not attend? Which skills did they not master? It tells us very little.”

With a competency-based model, students will follow a personalized learning plan based on needs, goals and interests. They’ll have regular progress reports based on competency, and teachers will be able to accelerate or slow down teaching based on students’ learning needs.

Flexible learning schedules will also benefit students who are working or parenting during normal school hours.

The school district’s next step will be to communicate the new system with students, families and the community.

“When we’re enrolling new scholars into Truman and Open Doors, we’re sharing out about this model – is this a fit for you?” Callison said. “And we’re hearing back, ‘Yes, it is.’”

For more information on Open Doors or Career Academy, visit