Ogden superintendent seeks 90 percent graduation rate

Jan 9 2012 - 10:26pm

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OGDEN -- Ogden School District Superintendent Brad Smith has highly ambitious plans for the class of 2013.

Smith expects the combined '13 classes of Ogden, Ben Lomond and George Washington high schools to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate.

That's despite the fact that the district's three high schools had a 2011 graduation rate of 63 percent. Ogden High School's 2011 graduation rate was 79 percent, according to the Utah State Office of Education. Ben Lomond High's was 78 percent, and the graduation rate for alternative school George Washington High was 32 percent, according to USOE figures.

All rates are based on exacting federal calculations, rather than the traditional Utah calculation formula used prior to 2011. By the new formula, Utah's statewide 2011 state graduation average is 75 percent.

"We are working on a set of guarantees right now to raise graduation rates," Smith said. "This is not something we are going to philosophically talk about. This is something we are going to do."

Achieving that goal will require changes in the district and in classrooms. Smith said he is not as concerned about upsetting a minority of teachers unwilling to change as he is with letting down district students.

"I'm worried about the consequences to a student who isn't able to perform," he said. "Our product as educators is education. If I had a physician who said, 'Well, three-quarters of my patients survive,' I wouldn't go to them. If teachers are worried they won't have a job, I sympathize on a human level with that, but I sympathize more with a student left behind. My focus is more on outcomes for the children."

Smith said he does not anticipate terminations.

"I do think most teachers support a change," he said. "There is a group of teachers, a minority, that resists any change. Teachers who are willing to produce and be open to change, they have nothing to fear from me. Teachers who refuse to change, who refuse to acknowledge the necessity for change in our district, yeah, we're going to have a problem.

"I believe the majority of teachers are willing to try different strategies. If someone is not suited to teach students in this district, yeah, they should probably find work elsewhere. The focus here has to be the outcome for students."

Judy Park, USOE associate superintendent for Student Services and Federal Programs, said Smith has set a lofty graduation goal.

"That would be an incredible accomplishment," she said. "If he is able to accomplish that goal, it would be great."

Has any Utah school ever accomplished such a large increase in graduation rates in such a short period of time?

"No," Park replied. "Ninety percent is really high."

Rick Palmer, executive director of Ogden-Weber UniServe education association, said he has been impressed with recent district efforts to get high school students to class on time, such as offering a longer lunch period for students who stick to the guidelines.

"I don't know about 90 percent, but we as an association have made a big effort to work on attendance because being in schools is a big part of success," Palmer said.

Smith's 90 percent plan has two major elements: The first is to track students carefully and do all that is possible to make sure they graduate or are not counted inappropriately as nongraduates.

The second element is to track all students closely by their test scores to identify knowledge and understanding weaknesses, and to get teachers to provide the individualized strategy that will reach each student and help him or her catch up.

The first element of Smith's plan, tracking nongraduates so they don't lower the district's graduation average more than appropriate, has been in effect since last year, he said.

"With the new federal standards going into effect, we saw lots of Utah schools' graduation rates drop, so a year ago we started to intensively track students and focus on where we were losing them and where they were going."

Students who moved to other districts and enrolled, but did not inform the Ogden School District of their whereabouts, were counted as non-graduates, so OSD stepped up its effort to track such students. True dropouts were contacted and asked to consider tutoring, online school or the alternative high school to make completing school easier. Students who left school early to start college were asked to consider the value of a high school diploma and offered online classes to complete their diplomas.

In the federal formula, special needs students who don't earn diplomas are counted as nongraduates. Smith believes all special needs students, except a small percentage with severe cognitive handicaps, could earn diplomas.

"The vast majority of them can graduate from high school with appropriate accommodations," Smith said.

It's the second element of Smith's the plan -- calling for schools to radically and relatively quickly increase the knowledge and test scores of below- average students -- that reportedly has some teachers and administrators worried and unsure of what to expect.

The Ogden School Board also upset many teachers last summer when it drew up a non-negotiated teacher contract and informed district teachers they had less than three weeks to sign or face losing their jobs. After a teachers' rally and an online petition that opposed the district's demand, all teachers except one, who decided not to return from a year off, signed the new contracts. The new contracts phased out step pay and allowed for phasing in merit pay, based on a system to be determined, which also left teachers unsure of how they would be judged.

"We will be modulating instruction based on what we are seeing from test results," Smith said, of his plan for a 90 percent graduation rate. "We are tracking individual students in a way that is relatively new.

Smith believes all 12,617 students in the district "can learn, benefit and excel in school."

"The easy excuse that we've used for years, for a generation, that our students are socioeconomically challenged or from a particular ethnic group or have a high poverty rate -- all those excuses are simply not acceptable.

"Across the country there are districts that do produce high proficiency schools, 90-90-90 schools that have 90 percent poverty, 90 percent ethnic minorities and 90 percent proficiency. In too many cases we have let some sort of creeping racism be our excuse. 'You just can't expect anything out of these students.' Well, bull. I don't accept that for a minute."

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