One Washington school district has taken a giant leap this year in pushing students to take college preparatory courses.
Starting in fall 2010, all students in grades 6-12 in Federal Way Public Schools who meet state standards are automatically enrolled in their school's advanced academic programs. As a result, the number of students enrolled in advanced courses has increased by 70 percent, and for the first time the district's ethnic diversity is reflected within these classes.
While other school systems have adopted automatic enrollment in traditional "honors" courses, in Federal Way the advanced courses are by default the highly demanding AP, IB and Cambridge programs.
Only a small number of students opt in to these incredibly rigorous, time-intensive programs in most schools. Now all Federal Way students who pass standardized tests are enrolled unless they opt out with parent permission.
Superintendent Rob Neu told The Huffington Post the new Academic Acceleration policy was put in place to help close the achievement gap. In Federal Way, 80 percent of students meet proficiency on state exams but only 30 percent were signing up for the advanced programs. They were also "disproportionately serving white and Asian students and not serving African American and Hispanic students," Neu said.
The policy was not meant to force students into classes they can't handle. Any student who wishes can simply opt out with parent permission.
"We are trying to encourage students to take the more rigorous academic program," said the superintendent.
But some parents complain that kids weren't told what they were up against and found themselves in way over their heads.
Michael Scuderi, the parent of a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, home of the district's IB program, said the policy came with little communication from the district. "It was just dropped on us," he said.
Scuderi, part of the Raider Parent Movement (like the PTA), said a lot of students dropped out, demoralized. "We've heard stories of kids that have dropped out of the program, and they're crushed," said Scuderi. "Students weren't told ahead of time everything they were getting themselves into."
Of the 274 11th graders at TJHS automatically enrolled in IB, 43 have dropped out. However, this does not include students who withdrew from one course but stayed in another.
The opt out/dropout rate is likely to be the highest in high school, where the advanced programs are most demanding. Students follow a strict and highly rigorous curriculum that culminates in a nationwide standard exam at the end of the school year.
In Federal Way, the advanced programs are being implemented as early as sixth grade, preparing students with officially sanctioned pre-IB, AP and Cambridge curricula.
Federal Way's new policy also represents a significant achievement since it was implemented without any increase in funding.
"A lot of the school districts are frozen in time," said Frank Ordway, Deputy Director at the League of Education Voters. "They feel they can't do anything without new money."
The district has cut about $30 million in spending in the past eight years, and it's one of the most poorly funded districts in Washington. Districts who have succeeded in similar endeavors have done so in much more affluent areas.
"There are a couple of districts in the state that have [implemented similar policies] and they've been successful," said Ordway. "The reality is that they're much more homogeneous."
This was also an accomplishment in closing the achievement gap between ethnic groups in a very diverse district. In Federal Way, 122 first languages are spoken among the district's 22,000 students, compared to 92 first languages in Los Angeles's 700,000 students.
Traditionally, Federal Way's advanced programs have served predominantly white and Asian students. Automatic enrollment ensures the demographic of students within the advanced programs is the same as it is in the rest of the district.
The real test of this policy's success will come with the results of the first Academic Acceleration group to take the AP, IB and Cambridge exams. For now, the passing rate in these courses gives some sign that the new students can keep up. Ninety-four percent of students in advanced courses passed with a C or better in the first semester, beating the district average by 10 percent.
"For this to buck that trend with first time enrollees is pretty exciting," said Superintendent Neu.
A lot of the difficulties faced so far were due to the transitional process, which ultimately can be worked out. What remains, TJHS parent Scuderi said, is the long term question about the effectiveness of the "one size fits all" Academic Acceleration model.
"Some kids are saying they're really bored because they're not moving fast," he said. "Other kids, we've heard from parents, are really intimidated for being put in with kids who are smarter."
The more advanced students are kept from flourishing as they would in a more selective group. On the other side, the bottom-tier students put in the advanced programs over their head could be being set up to fail.
"If you push kids, they will do better," said Scuderi, agreeing with the drive behind the Academic Acceleration policy. "I think there are some really good ideas out there, but it's the way it has been implemented. We don't know if it's going to work."