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Who belongs in AP classes? In Federal Way, anyone who "meets standards"

Across the country, schools are trying to get more students to take classes that prepare them for college. Some offer special tutoring programs. Others just offer to pay students who do well. School officials in Federal Way say the trouble with those strategies is - it leaves is up to students or teachers to decide who’s sharp enough to take those classes.

This year, administrators decided after years of trying to convince students to take college-level classes like AP and International Baccalaureate, they were going about it wrong. Instead of begging kids to opt-in, they started sticking kids in the classes and making them opt-out. Any student who “meets standard” on a state standardized tests, such as the HSPE, is considered qualified.

Different Strokes, Same Classes

Here are a few students from Todd Beamer High School who represent the range of academic backgrounds now enrolled in advanced classes in Federal Way:

  • Roshni Changela, a junior who earns straight A's and had "always wanted to go to college."
  • Shrae Hogan, a senior who gets "all right" grades and just wanted to to graduate high school.
  • Deshar House, a junior who has dyslexia, took special ed classes, and was held back in 3rd grade.

Robert Neu, superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools, says the goal isn't to push kids into classes they can't handle.

“I think at the core of this, we’re saying to a group of kids who never thought they were smart enough to be in these classes, we’re telling them they are," he says. "We’re saying, ‘here’s the bar, we’re raising it and we believe you can get there and we're going to provide the supports to do so.’”

Not everyone was happy when they found out they were enrolled in the classes.

“When I got into AP classes I was kind of like, I really don’t want to be here," says Hogan. "I’m going to fail and then I'm not graduate. So I tried to switch out as soon as possible.”

Easy Getting In, Tough Getting Out

The catch is students have to get their parents’ permission to opt-out. So most of the kids who were affected stayed put. Enrollment in advanced classes spikedthroughout the district. Students say that led to overcrowded classrooms where they fought over desks. Changela said that was frustrating for those who choose to be in the classes and want to do well:

“Some people don’t even care about the class," she says. "They have no intention of passing the AP test. If they aren’t going to work as hard as other people in the class who want to do good, then they shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Glenna Roderick, who teaches AP History and Government and coordinates the school’s AP program, says she was a little worried about the work ethic. She says it wasn't because she thought the students couldn't do it, she just feared they might be upset with the lack of choice and fail just to get out of class.

“I actually saw the opposite,” she says.

Thinking About Things Differently

Superintendent Neu says all the new students made for an adjustment period for everyone involved. 

“Sometimes we confuse behaviors with academic competence," he says. "What has traditionally happened is kids who did have the capability to get into these classes didn't because they may not have had the behaviors associated with them – the study skills perhaps. But they do have the intellect, they do have the aptitude to be successful in these classes."

Hogan says it was tough transition, especially in class. She says she used to sit in the back of class, frustrated, while her fellow students seemed to easily understand the lessons.

“Then something clicked," she says. "In order to get it, you have to want to get it.”

Before long, she says she was sitting next to people who got it and asking them questions. In just a few months, she went from not knowing what AP Government was, to passing the class. 

Not everyone was a success story like Hogan. At the end of first semester, six-percent of students in the district didn't pass their advanced classes. The ones who did say they couldn’t have done it alone. They give some credit to teachers. But they saw what really made the difference was family:

“Honestly, I probably would’ve just stopped showing up to class if it wasn’t for my mom," says Hogan. "In my mind I couldn’t do it. But because my mom was there, ‘no, just go, you can do it.’ Then I just, I had to prove something to her.”

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.