Melissa Mellor

Excellence the Federal Way

It's easy to say we expect excellence, but it can be a lot tougher to put that expectation into practice.

Washington state's Federal Way Public Schools took on that challenge this school year by implementing its Academic Acceleration policy, through which the school district auto enrolls students in advanced academic classes instead of requiring them to proactively select them. Put simply, students must opt out, not opt in, to more rigorous courses. Thus, every student in grades 6–12 who passes the state test in a specific subject area is signed up for advanced placement, International Baccalaureate, Cambridge International, or honors classes in that subject. It's the district's effort to open up classes that have traditionally served only a handful of privileged students to all students, regardless of their economic background, gender, and race.

Assistant superintendent and former ASCD Emerging Leader Joshua Garcia describes the effort as an attempt to break institutional limitations on students and the ultimate form of parent engagement. Instead of the school determining whether a student can enroll in an advanced placement course, parents are empowered to make that choice along with their children.

It seems to be working. The number of students enrolled in advanced academic classes nearly doubled in the district this year, skyrocketing from 1,214 students to 2,078, more than half of whom are students of color. More than 65 percent of the district's juniors and seniors now take at least one advanced class, compared to last year's 38 percent.

Perhaps even more powerful than the numbers are the stories of the individual students benefiting from this policy. Teachers report that students who didn't consider themselves to be "college material" are rising to the challenge and experiencing academic successes that they didn't always believe was possible. That's not to say the shift has been easy. The district has had to grapple with the logistical challenges of serving greater numbers of students in advanced courses and is providing tutoring for kids who need the extra support.

Federal Way's work is garnering considerable attention in the state. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat compared the effort to the controversial Chinese Tiger Mom, albeit as a favorable example of demanding excellence. The Tacoma News Tribune describes it as a promising innovation that has the potential to help students obliterate "cramped ideas of their own potential" and prepare them for college. Meanwhile, Garcia highlighted the policy as part of his testimony at a work session of the state's House Education Committee.

It's important to note that the district's acceleration policy is part of its broader commitment to educating the whole child. Federal Way embraces arts and extracurricular activities as ways to produce graduates who score well academically and are also employable.

"I'm not suggesting core academics are not important," said superintendent Rob Neu. "We need to improve and we need to compete academically on the international level. What I am suggesting is that we need to broaden our focus of measurement and accountability of what American education ought to be."

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