When former Superintendent Tom Murphy retired in the summer of 2010, Washington’s Federal Way Public Schools brought in Rob Neu as his successor. Neu had what the Federal Way’s board of education was looking for, including more than 20 years’ experience in education and a belief in student-centered decision-making, comprehensive curriculum and strong extra-curricular programming.
“I believe in the work this district does, and I intend to add to that through my belief in measuring our effectiveness on the development of the whole child,” says Neu.
With an enrollment of 21,350, nearly 2,700 staff members and 37 schools, Federal Way Public Schools serves four cities and parts of unincorporated King County. It is a diverse community that is 15 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian and nine percent African-American.
Many academic undertakings predate Neu’s arrival as superintendent, but he fully supports their continuation. The district has a partnership with the Technology Access Foundation that inspires females and minorities to pursue science, technology, engineering and math. The district also offers AVID writing, inquiry, collaboration and reading programming at all of its secondary schools. An IB Middle Years program was implemented at two middle schools in 2010 and two high schools in 2011, as well.
The district also has one of the largest school-based AmeriCorps teams in the United States, runs a math initiative with Algebraic Thinking in middle school and Beyond High School planning for students beginning in 8th grade.
Additional new initiatives have begun to pave the way for student success in Neu’s early days at the helm of the Federal Way Public Schools. In fact, three recently adopted policies oversee the district’s efforts to educate all students. In 2010, the district established the new Policy Governance model of leadership for the school board. It is designed to allow the board to take a wider view of the district’s direction and instruct the superintendent on expectations.
Also in 2010, the district implemented an Academic Acceleration policy to automatically enroll students who meet state and internal assessment standards into Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Cambridge and honors classes. The program has met with a lot of support, but also a little fear.
The effort is intended to raise the educational bar for all students, but some parents and students reacted with caution, viewing the policy as potentially dangerous because some students might not be ready for the demanding curriculum. Students can opt out with parental permission. The program’s goal is to create more opportunities for district students to have success in more academically challenging setting and be better equipped for life outside of the school system.
A year after the implementation of Federal Way Public Schools’ (FWPS) Academic Acceleration policy, several trends stand out in the advanced academic testing results. A greater percentage of students are taking and passing advanced academic classes than before the policy went into effect, and a greater percentage is taking and passing related after-course exams.
“The Academic Acceleration policy should help close the achievement gap. AP programs were serving mostly white and Asian students,” says Neu. “We believe this policy will help improve the educational experience for many African American and Hispanic students by providing them with an option to enter into more rigorous academic programming."
This fall, the district moved to a new standards-based education system, as well. It establishes challenging and appropriate learning targets in every course, at every grade level, so students graduate with the most important knowledge and 21st century skills. The use of standards-based instruction, assessment and reporting at all district schools provides students with a seamless K-12 curriculum, as well as consistent and equitable measurements of student performance.
The evidence of the district’s success in promoting learning and achievement is easy to see. In 2010, the Thomas Jefferson High math team placed in the top 10 nationally, Star Lake Elementary School was named a School of Distinction by the Center for Educational Effectiveness, Sacajawea Middle School was named a role model for other schools by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
As part of its strategic plan, Federal Way Public Schools intends to continue exceeding expectations. In the years ahead, all schools will be expected to make adequate yearly progress and demonstrate math and reading state testing results that are above the state average. Half of juniors and seniors will be enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement class and Advanced Placement examination. Coaching and mentoring of staff are also critical to continued academic excellence.
The district is also investing in technology. In 2010, voters passed a technology replacement levy that will help the district upgrade computers and provide strong technology education. The levy was structured to keep taxpayer contributions to schools from rising in the next six years.
“Federal Way is doing what is right for all of our students and finding opportunities within challenges,” Neu says. ”The district has a steadfast commitment to educational excellence, and we will continue to measure student achievement according to state and federal standards while using a curriculum that is interesting and relevant to the world our students must be prepared for.”
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