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‘Making the Grade:’ Are Utah public schools failing kids or are kids, parents failing school?

By Benjamin Zack And Kelly Keiter - | May 9, 2014

OGDEN – Are students being graded fairly in state-mandated testing?

The scores are part of what determines whether a school receives an ‘A’ grade or a failing grade and that often reflects on the performance of teachers and staff. Several schools in Ogden City School District received failing grades from the state last year. This has resulted in the current administration using more forward approaches, including implementing new curriculum and tutoring students double-time to ensure they walk the stage at graduation.

“I’ll be satisfied when 10 percent of the graduates at Ben Lomond High School and Ogden High School are going to Ivy League schools,” said Ogden School District Superintendent Brad Smith.

Yet, some critics worry the administration’s approaches are not meeting kids halfway.

“I’m worried that the thing that most governs Mr. Smith’s actions is Mr. Smith’s reputation, not even necessarily the school district’s,” said Kim Irvine, former leader of the Weber County Democratic Education Caucus. “I hope that their efforts are authentic – that they truly are trying to get to the root of the problem.”

It’s a complicated game of numbers. Many in the education world see no other option than to play along, attempting to keep graduation rates and their students’ state-mandated test scores as high as possible to avoid the stigma of getting a ‘D’ or an ‘F.’ The standardized tests, many say, are the only reliable measure to know how Utah’s schools are performing. While tests have mainly been administered in multiple choice format, this year, a new computerized version is being implemented, called SAGE, or Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence. Some teachers and administrators hope the new format will give them better information to instruct their students to succeed in school and life.

“With the new assessment, we want students to not just be able to tell us what the text says, we want them to be able to tell us what the text means,” said Irvine, a former Ogden School District instructor who now teaches at South Ogden Junior High in the Weber School District. “We are trying really hard to bring up the rigor across the board.”

Others feel more skeptical.

“We feel concerned on multiple levels,” said Stacey Briggs, principal of Ogden High School. “We need to make sure that all of our students can manipulate the tools. And that they have enough resilience and persistence so they can get through all of that information on the screen.”

In a two-month period of interviewing and going out to schools that received poor scores on state school report cards, administrators, teachers, parents and students gave mixed opinions about the state of Northern Utah’s schools. Some say they’re tired of hearing that Ogden’s schools are bad. They say it’s not the teachers who are failing the students, but the parents and students who are failing themselves in their home life or other outside factors. They claim any child can get a good education if they apply themselves and get the right support at home and at school. And they applaud teachers in struggling districts for their efforts, especially those working in inner-city schools, where poverty is prevalent.

Administrators at Title 1 schools say they seem to take the most heat from outsiders.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions,” said Ann Pettit, principal at Odyssey Elementary, a Title 1 school in downtown Ogden. “The biggest misconception is that these students have a lower intelligence and just cannot learn, which is not true. Another big misconception is the diversity in this school. People say, ‘Oh you’re located in a certain part of town, you must have all the naughty and terrible students,’ which is absolutely not true. Have you been in that school? Have you been there and talked to one of those students? There are bad, naughty kids in every school.”

Many believe struggling school districts may be hyper-focused on test scores, which they say offer no fair view of how individual students are performing.

“I think they’re trying to find a solution to a problem, but currently, and it’s not just in Ogden City, it’s in districts all across the country, they’re using scores as a measure instead of an assessment,” said Carol Wilde, a retired Ogden school teacher.

“I find it very hard, personally, here at my home when my daughter says ‘I’m so worried that my score is going to make all the difference,'” said Gloria Richards, a parent and president of the PTA at Polk Elementary. “They do get stressed and they shouldn’t be worried about that. They should be kids.”

“You know, that’s one caution I would send to parents in communities, make sure you understand what they’re really looking at before you weigh those results too heavily one way or the other,” said Chad Kirby, principal at Snowville Elementary.

In a new six-part documentary series out this week on the Standard-Examiner website, “Making the Grade: Why Some Schools Succeed and Others Fail,” state leaders, school administrators, students and community members address their biggest concerns surrounding the local school system. Are the teachers in “failing” districts really to blame or are kids coming into the school system ill-prepared due to poverty and other outside factors? And what can be done to stop the intergenerational poverty cycle?

“Ogden School District has been marked by massive infusions of Title 1 money. And there have been many programs over two decades, trying to improve student performance, almost all of which have not had any staying power, whatsoever, so I knew we had to do something totally different,” Smith said. “What I’ve tried to focus on is probably the three most important research-based changes we could make to alter student achievement: Strong school leadership, dedication to data driven instruction and improving instruction in the classroom.”

What do charter schools or private schools in the area offer and are they effective alternatives to public schools? What can be learned from schools that break the mold and succeed in low-income areas? How important is parental involvement and early childhood development?

The documentary series explores what Title 1 schools are doing to combat poverty and offer a save haven for underprivileged children. It also focuses on the success of new government programs aimed to increase graduation rates by offering early childhood development courses in poor communities.

PTA members in several Northern Utah schools districts discuss why they believe parents have more power than they realize when it comes to their child’s academic success.

“My hope is that as parents stay involved in kids’ lives all along the way, the graduation rates will go up,” Richards said. “It’s all about getting enough information to make good judgments and solutions. Parents, teachers and administrators all want the same thing – to help each child to succeed. If this is not the goal for them, then something needs to change.”

“Making the Grade: Why Some Schools Succeed and Others Fail,” premiered at Pleasant Valley Library in South Ogden on Thursday. The first episode “How to tell if a school is succeeding,” can be found on the Standard-Examiner’s website at www.standard.net. New episodes in the six-part series will be posted each week on Monday.


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