OGDEN — According to Ben Lomond High School Principal Steve Poll, students struggling to find success in school are in that position for one of three reasons — they are not able to do their work, they won’t do their work or they don’t come to school.
The school has made a concerted effort to identify students who fall into the first category due to a language barrier and connect them to support, Poll said. And that effort has paid off.
The Utah State Board of Education in a meeting last week recognized Ben Lomond as one of eight schools in the state that are “excellent” in closing the opportunity gap for the school’s multilingual learners — students learning English.
“It’s worthy of celebration,” said Ogden School District Superintendent Rich Nye in a school board meeting Thursday.
In order to earn “excellent” status, a high school must enroll at least 800 students. Of those students, 25-50% must be economically disadvantaged — meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch — and 10-15% must be multilingual learners. Approximately 59.9% of students at Ben Lomond High are economically disadvantaged and 12.7% are multilingual learners, according to USBE enrollment data.
Additionally, of the multilingual learners, 25-45% must have achieved their individual annual growth goal, 10% or more must reach English proficiency and 33-45% are enrolled in advanced courses.
“Fantastic progress, not only in graduating but in how students are accessing the curriculum and how they’re progressing,” Nye said.
The state awarded three schools “exemplary” status. To reach that level, a school must have a student body of at least 1,500 — there are 1,042 students at Ben Lomond High.
In 2020, two Ogden School District elementary schools were recognized for “excellent” English language instruction and one, Odyssey Elementary School, earned “exemplary” status.
Nye told the Standard-Examiner in November that English language instruction has become one of the district’s primary focuses due to its high concentration of students learning English. Every teacher hired by the district is expected to obtain an English as a second language teaching endorsement within three years.
“It’s just the recognition that regardless of a student’s background, race, ethnicity, we’re going to provide the best education we can,” Nye said.
Consequently, the graduation rate among English learners in the district is well above the state average, with 83.1% of multilingual learners graduating versus 73.3% statewide.
At Ben Lomond High School, there are multiple resources available for students who are working to learn English, Poll said. Multilingual learners can take a class tailored to their needs, but outside of class, the school has hired support staff to act as students’ tutors, mentors, advocates — whatever they need.
One of those staff members is Paul Baltazaar, a recent Ben Lomond High graduate and Weber State University student who plans on studying education and leadership.
“There are so many students in high school, and the counselors can only get to so many people at once,” Baltazaar said. “Some fall between the cracks, so I help them out.”
He spends his time at the school helping students with homework, translating tests and assignments, showing them how to get involved in extracurriculars and assisting students in applying for post-secondary education.
Many of the students, he said, flock to his office on their own to share achievements, like acing a test. As a self-identified Hispanic whose parents were born in Mexico, Baltazaar said, his shared culture has helped him build a rapport with multilingual learners.
“The most rewarding part about it is being among them and being able to see them enjoy school because they have somebody they can relate to,” he said.
Baltazaar admires the students he works with for all of the effort they put into learning, pointing out how difficult it is to immigrate to another country and take challenging classes in a new language.
“It’s good to finally see that (multilingual learners) in the program are finally getting recognized for their hard work, because it’s not easy to do,” he said. “They’re out here doing it on an everyday basis and trying to do it on their own, and that’s something that’s really extraordinary.”