New Academic Acceleration Program Increases Students’ College Readiness

The number of students enrolled in advanced academic classes nearly doubled in Federal Way Public Schools this year.  And, for the first time, enrollment in advanced classes better reflects the ethnic diversity of the district’s student population. All this is due to the start of the district’s academic acceleration policy.

Beginning this school year, Federal Way Public Schools began the practice of automatically enrolling qualified middle and high school students in advanced academic classes such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge. Students’ scores on the state’s standardized tests determine the classes they are enrolled in.

Until this year, Federal Way allowed students to decide for themselves whether to enroll in advanced classes. Many qualified students chose not to enroll, giving a variety of reasons including the perception that “those classes” just weren’t meant for them.

 “We’re working to break down perceptions that students and parents have about who should be in advanced classes,” said Joshua Garcia, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching for Learning. “It’s important that higher academic achievement is a goal for all of our students.”

Purity Njuguna, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School, acknowledges she wouldn’t have signed up for the International Baccalaureate American History course on her own. “I thought it was hard and too much work,” says the native of Nairobi, Kenya. “But now I think it’s kind of easy. When I ask the teacher for help, he explains it, and then I get it. And when I don’t get it, I stay after school and ask for help.”

Federal Way may be the only district in the state that automatically places students in advanced classes, according to Barbara Dettrick, advanced placement programs supervisor with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “This is an ambitious effort that has huge potential to bring about dual credit opportunities for students,” she said.

Because of the automatic enrollment, more than 65 percent of the district’s juniors and seniors now take at least one advanced class. Only 38 percent were in advanced classes last year. In addition, the number of students of color enrolled in advanced classes increased by 43 percent.

Research shows that students strongly benefit from taking advanced classes. Among the advantages: They are better prepared for college course work and tend to earn better grades. They are more likely to graduate from college. Finally, competitive colleges are more likely to admit students who have taken advanced courses and to offer academic scholarships to them.

Academic Acceleration Program: Student Profiles

Purity Njuguna, Thomas Jefferson

Purity Njuguna, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School, has an interesting perspective on American History. She moved to Federal Way from Narobi, Kenya in 2007. “I didn’t know Kenya was included in the slave trade. It was interesting because when I was back in Kenya, I didn’t know that happened.”

Now, she appreciates learning how America grew up. “There was the south and the north, and nowadays, they don’t fight. It was kind of funny because most of it was over slavery.”

Purity has delved deeper into American History in an IB-level class, which she acknowledges she wouldn’t have taken on her own. “I thought it was hard and too much work. But now I think it’s kind of easy. When I ask the teacher for help, he explains it, and then I get it. And when I don’t get it, I stay after school and ask for help.”

Although Purity started learning English in third grade, it took her another year to feel comfortable understanding and speaking English in her new home. She feels most comfortable speaking to the two Ignite freshmen she meets with at least once a week. “I struggled as a freshman because I was too shy to talk with anybody. Some students don’t like asking teachers questions, but they will ask me, so I will then go and talk to the teacher,” she explained.

Purity knows that some students don’t want to put in the extra work and end up dropping out of advanced classes. She prefers to push herself. “I’m proud of myself. I thought it was hard for me, but I can get it. Like my dad told me, ‘If you want to do something, it’s up to you.’ If I try it, it will be good for me to prepare for college and learn something new.”

Purity also takes Spanish 5, Woodworking and Chemistry. She hopes to get into Washington State University to study in the medical field.

“She is quite an articulate young woman and has learned to work hard in order to accomplish her goals,” said Marsha Denton, principal of Thomas Jefferson.

Richard Deitz, Federal Way

Although he might not have signed up for Advanced Placement Literature and Composition on his own, Richard Deitz is now enjoying reading and writing about literature.

The Federal Way High School senior didn’t think he had the skills and drive to succeed in advanced classes, said Kathy Fouts, his English teacher, but an attitude change helped him to broaden his horizons. “Richard is thriving in my AP Lit and Comp class,” she said. “Currently he has a B and most recently, his Jane Eyre essay demonstrates mastery of standards.” 

“Recently, he confessed to me that he enjoys reading. The experiences seem to ‘broaden his horizon’ and ‘provide him with insights into his own learning.’ Accompanied by his father at his student led conference, he was beaming with pride in his work, even going so far as to say that he ‘feels prepared for college’ and has the ‘confidence to take more difficult and demanding courses,’” said Fouts.

Kevin Fuentes, Decatur

A quiet and reserved junior, Kevin Fuentes plans to attend Central Washington University to pursue a degree in law enforcement following high school graduation. Kevin has earned relatively good grades over the past couple years, but did not aspire to challenge himself by taking advanced academic classes.

After receiving his state reading and writing scores last spring, Kevin as among the first group of students to be automatically enrolled in Advanced Placement English Literature. In a conversation about classes and career plans with Assistant Principal Adam Kulaas, a subtle but distinct shift in demeanor conveyed his pride when the subject of the AP literature class was brought up.

“As an administrator, educator, parent and learner, I share Kevin’s confidence and smile knowing that the advanced acceleration policy is doing what is best for kids,” Kulaas said. “Although Kevin’s story is quite common on the surface, I was excited to see a student who was challenged to push himself. He reminds me of thousands of other kids who were capable of more, but not challenged to push themselves – maybe a little of myself included.”

Posted: January 19, 2011