Nationwide, we are seeing an uptick in the number and variety of accelerated programs offered to students, in particular, high schools are increasingly expanding their AP and IB offerings so student can get a jump start on college credits. Starting in 2014, one Tacoma Public School System will automatically enroll students who show academic promise in advanced level high school classes that are labeled advanced placement or international baccalaureate. help students get a leg up in the college game, members of the School Board approved the new policy that is designed to expand enrollment in rigorous classes. The new policy will help students prepare for college and, in some cases, earn college credit while still in high school.

The policy, known as academic acceleration, is modeled after a pioneering initiative that began in 2010 in Federal Way Public Schools.

Federal Way began enrolling middle and high school students who met standards on state tests in advanced classes. After the policy was implemented, the number of students in those kinds of classes doubled and the composition of the classes better reflected the district’s ethnic diversity, according to school district statistics.

Federal Way’s example helped lead to passage earlier this year of a state law encouraging academic acceleration in more school districts.

The budget approved Friday by state lawmakers contains nearly $2.2 million to fund districts such as Federal Way and Tacoma that adopt academic acceleration policies. The money is designed to pay for teacher training, curriculum, technology, exam fees and other costs associated with offering classes that allow students to earn high school and college credits at the same time.

Examples of advanced classes in Tacoma high schools include Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Running Start or College in the High School classes.

Tacoma’s new policy builds on efforts already underway, said Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia. He helped develop Federal Way’s policy while an administrator there, then brought the concept with him when he began working in Tacoma schools in 2012.

The School Board set a goal earlier this year of increasing the percentage of Tacoma students enrolled in advanced courses from the current 35 percent to 55 percent by 2015. It also promised to work toward eliminating disparities in enrollment among groups of students.

Students might not choose rigorous classes for many reasons, Garcia said.

“Sometimes it is a scheduling issue,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not knowing the process. Sometimes kids are nervous about trying challenging coursework.”

Too often, educators say, some students of color or from low-income families don’t enroll in rigorous classes. They might worry that they won’t succeed, or that they won’t fit into a high-octane academic environment.

A May report to the School Board showed 51 percent of Asian students enrolled in at least one academically rigorous course, while 34 percent of white students, 33 percent of Hispanic students and 28 percent of black students did so.

Foss, home of the district’s IB high school program, had 53 percent of its students enrolled in at least one high-rigor course. Lincoln enrolled 49 percent of its students, while Mount Tahoma had 29 percent.

Garcia and others say placing kids in the classes first — and allowing them to opt out by choice — has the power to reverse the dynamic.

Even without automatic enrollment, Tacoma is working to expand its course offerings and train more teachers to deliver the instruction needed. But the district must establish guidelines for the criteria that will be used to auto-enroll students in more challenging courses, Garcia said.

“It will be multiple measures, not one simple, fixed number,” he said.

Liesl Santkuyl, who works for educational advocacy group Stand for Children in Tacoma, said her organization supports the school district’s efforts.

“We think Tacoma is being progressive,” she said.

The new policy will ensure that more students are prepared for college, Santkuyl said.

School Board member Karen Vialle said the new policy will ensure that all kids have access to the kinds of instruction that can help them succeed in college and careers. She said research shows that if you let students know you expect them to succeed, they will.

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