I Choose Ogden: School opening institute highlights Ogden's growth

Tuesday , August 19, 2014 - 5:32 PM

Pamela Perlich

Pamela S. Perlich, of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah,...

OGDEN — Utah is changing, and those changes make teachers more important than ever.

“You are in an incredible position to shape the future of our entire state,” Pamela S. Perlich told educators gathered for Ogden School District’s opening institute at Ogden High School.

The theme of the opening institute Friday was “I Choose Ogden,” and speakers included employees and parents talking about why they choose to work for, or send their children to, Ogden schools. Perlich, from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah, explained why more people are moving to Utah, and why many of the newcomers choose Ogden. 

“We all recognize that Utah is in the midst of an amazing economic, demographic and cultural transformation,” she said. “The signs of change are all around us.”

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In the 1950s, most states in the Mountain West had about half a million people each, according to Perlich. Now Utah has a population of 2.7 million, and most surrounding states have similar numbers. 

Thirty-six percent of the people in the U.S. are minorities, she said, adding that Ogden is on pace with the nation.

”In 2010, for the first time in our nation’s statistical history, minority children are the majority of children born,” said Perlich, adding that this piece of data has enormous consequences and tells a great deal about the future.

Those identified as “white” include people of Middle Eastern descent, and Bosnian and Serbian refugees, she said, “So this is not the ’white’ of Utah’s past — the Hansens and Jensens and Christensens — this is a very, very diverse population.”

New people who come to our communities are major drivers of change, Perlich told the audience, adding that people who make long-distance moves are risk takers and innovators, and they’re young.

“When new communities come to established communities, they transform who we are,” she said. “They give us a view into a different culture, they give us access to the linguistic and cultural capital we’ve never had before, and they themselves are transformed by the communities they move into — they become Americans.”

Utah has become a net in-migration area.

“How come Utah has become a gateway for new populations? Well, it’s been employment opportunities. It’s also the fact that we are a refugee-receiving community. We have universities that bring people from all over the world, and should you walk into the student union at beautiful Weber State University — it’s such a beautiful campus — you hear languages of people who come from all over the world to study, or are here as faculty or as research staff. ... And, of course, there’s the sales force,” Perlich said, and the audience broke into laughter when she flashed a giant photo of LDS missionaries. “The sales force is diversifying this year, right — the women — so I’m predicting an increase in sales.”

Perlich said it with humor, but she wasn’t joking.

“If you look at where the church has sent this core of very impressive young people, you can see that they’re being sent to further and further reaches throughout the world,” she said. “Regardless of whether somebody would convert to the church — whether they make the sale — the sale they do make, absolutely, is that Utah is an incredible place because these are very impressive young people, and they leave a positive, welcoming impression of our state. So these connections have brought people from all over the world.“

Many of these young immigrants settle in Ogden, because housing is more affordable in the area, she said. 

Perlich also discussed other changes in demographics. Utah is still the youngest state and has the largest average household size, she said, but those numbers are trending down. Baby boomers are aging, but in the next five to 10 years millennials will outnumber boomers.

”If you study general changes, which you do if you’re a teacher and you’re working with youth, you know the sensibilities and understandings of this new generation .... is very different than baby boomers,“ said Perlich, a boomer who grew up in Tulsa, Okla. ”I remember watching, 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s beautiful ’I Have a Dream’ speech. I remember seeing the civil rights marchers and the civil rights movement, and I had no idea, in my lifetime, that I would see an African-American president — we still had ’whites only’ areas in town. ... Consider a second-grader today — all he or she has ever known is an African-American president and his family. This is their reality. This is what they’ve grown up with.“

Because today’s students live in a different world, education must be different.

“We are literally having to reinvent how we do so many things across our communities. So many of our institutions were built for people that look like me — the old, white baby boomers,” said Perlich. “Many of our institutions just don’t fit the challenges and the realities of the world we live in today.”

Economic data is also showing a shift. 

“There is more socioeconomic inequality in the U.S., and in Utah,” Perlich said, then showed graphics demonstrating that Ogden has a lot of students living in poverty.

She shared the results of a study conducted on the lives of children born in the early 1980s, comparing their economic status in childhood with their status at age 30.

“What they found is that the probability of upward mobility, across generations, is powerfully influenced by the community and neighborhoods in which you are raised,” she said.

In the Salt Lake-Weber area, there was about a one in eight chance of a child born in the bottom fifth ending up in the top fifth of the income distribution. In cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, the odds were far less favorable. Perlich said researchers identified several factors that made it possible for the Utah kids to succeed, including greater equality, mixed-income neighborhoods, community safety nets to help families recover from financial distress, and an educational system that worked for them.

The odds may not be as good for Utah kids today, she said, noting that there is a greater economic gap, and the middle class is under siege. Those in poverty are now more likely to live in a low-income neighborhood, instead of a mixed-income area. Pensions are mostly gone, and the LDS Bishop’s Storehouse doesn’t cover a wide enough swath, she said. Education can also be a struggle today, according to Perlich, because there are fewer parents at home able to help students prepare for kindergarten, and greater diversity means that it no longer works to plan the same curriculum for all students.

“So Utah no longer has that sort of silver bullet combination of factors that gave us those good results,” she said.

That’s what makes a teacher’s work with kids today so extraordinarily important, Perlich said.

“Nothing is a more powerful influence over a person’s life, and I know you know this as an educator, than believing in that kid, knowing that kid can make it, getting that kid through high school, and getting them launched into a productive life,” she said. “The first step is getting them through school — that infrastructure of opportunity.”

Ogden teachers are in a unique position, she said, because of the district’s demographics.

“The success of Ogden, Salt Lake, Provo — all of Utah — depends upon the success rate of our young Hispanic students, our diverse students, because they are the face of Utah’s tomorrow,” said Perlich. 

Denise Bagnell said Perlich’s speech was a good reminder.

“We need to realize that the entire country’s changing, and the face we’re used to seeing is not going to be ours reflected back at us,” said the teacher from Gramercy Elementary School.

Kim Hamm, also from Gramercy, was fascinated by the fact that Ogden is more on par with rest of the U.S., as far as demographics and what teachers face in education, than the state in general.

Gary Gabriel White, a drama teacher at Ben Lomond High, was not surprised by the demographics Perlich shared.

“It all felt natural to see the numbers, because Ogden is very diverse in its population. It’s great. I love it,” he said.

Darrell Chun said he chose to be in Ogden School District because he likes working with Title 1 students, so he wasn’t surprised to learn about the diversity or poverty statistics in the area. He was interested in the statistics about baby boomers and millenials.

“I’m in the latter part of the baby boom, and my son would be in the millenial group,” he said.

He was surprised by Utah’s current fertility rate.

“I guess the Utah average now is 2.4 kids per family. I never would have guessed that,” he said. “I’m not from Utah ... and in our generation, and those just after the boom, it was the norm to have large families.” 

Claire Maciejewski, a first-grade teacher at Polk Elementary, liked the research that showed students in lowest poverty had the chance to rise to the top.

“I thought that was really impressive,” she said.

While conditions aren’t the same anymore, she still thinks it’s possible for kids to succeed.

“I think, as teachers, we’re doing a great job,” she said. “Maybe mothers aren’t staying home to help them be ready to read in kindergarten, but I just know that we’re making changes to help them be where they need to be.”

After the keynote speech, Superintendent Brad Smith thanked those in attendance for choosing Ogden School District, and talked about what he thinks it means to choose Ogden.

“What does it look like to choose Ogden? It looks like collaboration. It looks like innovation. It looks like the first IB cohort that graduated last spring form Ogden High. It looks like data analysis and action plan. It looks like a strong and positive relationship between the district and our employees associations. It looks like high attendance rates. Choosing Ogden looks like routines and procedures that minute by minute support learning. It looks like caring teachers and students, parents, custodians, lunch ladies and workers and administrators,” he said.

The list continued, and included that “choosing Ogden looks like believing in our children until they believe in themselves.” 

Maciejewski enjoyed hearing the scheduled speakers, as well as some from the audience, talk about why they chose Ogden.

“People talk not-so-nicely about Ogden district, a lot, and I think it was good to hear the good things about it instead of the negative things you hear,” she said.

White also liked hearing his fellow teachers talk about why they chose Ogden.

“Most of them said, ’I choose Ogden because the kids are worth it.’ ” he said. “Although we’re in a high minority population, they’re the kids who need you the most, and you fall in love with them more than the kids who don’t really need a family figure — and that’s what teachers sometimes become is a new family figure, in a sense.”

Chris Wright, just starting his first year as a teacher at Mound Fort Junior High, thought the opening institute was pretty cool.

“I feel really welcome, and I feel like it’s a celebration of why I came here, which is diversity,” he said, adding that the keynote address reaffirmed the idea that Ogden’s an interesting place to be in Utah. “I think that’s why i was drawn here. I moved here from California, and I miss the diversity and culture, and different ethnicities, so I’m really happy to be where I am.”

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or bwright@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright. 

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