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The City Journals

Midvale Elementary’s extended turnaround status put to the test

Jun 04, 2019 03:02PM ● By Julie Slama

Midvale Elementary teacher Sharon Aitken reviews area and perimeter with third-grade students. Administrators say small group instruction is contributing to improved test scores and understanding of subject material. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Back in February, after compelling testimonies showing the Utah State School Board that Midvale Elementary was on track to make significant strides in student achievement, the school was given a two-year extension.

School-year data, after implementing new programs, showed the school is on track as administrators point to sizeable increases in testing scores in reading and math. 

This spring, students are taking the RISE — Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment — assessment tests, which will generate a year-end score that will be compared to the past five years of SAGE — Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence — testing, as well as their third assessment in reading and math. 

“We’re working with a private consultant as well as a U of U consultant; the Board of Education has pumped in additional money for resources; and that school is busting their tails,” Canyons Superintendent Jim Briscoe said. “We’re optimistic the students’ RISE scores will reflect their hard work.”

Board member Mont Millerberg is cautiously optimistic.

“It’s looking good, but I won’t promise anything until I see the test results,” he said. “I hope every early indication is indicative of what we’ll see testing this spring.”

The RISE scores will be data the Utah State Board of Education will use in part to determine if granting the two-year extension was the right move.

“The bottom line for all of us is, students first,” Midvale Assistant Principal Jeri Rigby said. “It’s our vision and our mission. The hearts of the staff and faculty want these children to be successful beyond their wildest dreams. We believe in providing the greatest opportunities for every child.”

Turnaround schools

The 2015 School Turnaround and Leadership Development Act originated with former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who represented the district where Midvale Elementary lies as well as other schools within the boundaries of Canyons District, which honored him with its APEX award that same year.

Turnaround schools are those in the lowest 3 percent of student achievement statewide measured by the year-end testing in language arts, math and science. These schools, which have formed a turnaround committee of educators, administrators, parents and a school board member, receive grants and are given assistance from experts to help increase student performance and assistance.

Schools are granted three years to show significant improvement to exit the turnaround status or face rigorous consequences, Niederhauser said.

“The genesis of this, Speaker (Rebecca) Lockhart and I, as president of the Senate, on the Education Task Force, saw school grades slipping especially in the Title I schools, which face challenging demographics,” he said. “Several schools on the turnaround program, with the consultants to help them, have improved with kids receiving a better education and improved proficiency in reading and math. That 10 to 20 percent growth to raise their school grade is huge and those students are receiving that much better education.”

In 2015, Midvale, as well as other schools, was identified by state education officials as a turnaround school, meaning it was given three years to improve its low school grade or face sanctions which could mean transferring the school control to another entity outside the Canyons Board of Education. 

At the time, the state report card gave Midvale Elementary a D. Three years later, the school grade was an F and last fall, the school was notified it failed to meet the exit requirements.

It wasn’t alone. The charter, Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts, in American Fork, voluntarily closed this past fall, ahead of its turnaround deadline. When the 61-year-old Oquirrh Elementary didn’t meet its turnaround status this winter, Granite Board of Education decided to close the school and redraw boundaries. Another charter, Entheos Academy, in Magna, received an extension, but must report back to the Board within a year on its progress.

“It may seem harsh, but I consulted everyone and got their input on implementing turnaround schools. It forces discussion on what to do for these kids and to provide them the best opportunities. The past system for the last 20 to 30 years wasn’t working. Now, 2,000 students have better opportunities they didn’t have before,” Niederhauser said.

Midvale’s extension

Niederhauser said he wasn’t involved in granting Midvale Elementary a two-year extension.

“We set the time at three years because that is half of the time an elementary student is in that school. Longer would mean the majority of time students’ early education is in a poor-performing school and that is failing our students. I was not involved in the extension, but I hope it is based on the commitment to improve and make progress,” he said.

However, that was exactly what Principal Chip Watts took to the state school board.

“The results we’re already seeing from the program we implemented last fall, we haven’t seen in the past,” he said. “We’ve already had amazing growth and we are on target to turnaround.”

Watts said the DIBEL — Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — scores in math and language arts “exceed any growth achieved by Midvale students in the last three years.”

“The truth is our students are growing at impressive rates,” he said in the parent newsletter. “The past few years we have seen a trend of having kids get further and further behind in math throughout the year. This year we have reversed that trend. We have almost reached our goal of having 60 percent of our kids make typical or above typical growth in reading.”

With DIBEL testing at the school slated for May 15, Watts expected students to reach that mark before school was out for the year. That, he said, is remarkable since school turnaround experts have told him “it takes at least five years to be able to turn a failing school around and build a culture that will support it.”

The change

This past fall, Midvale Elementary administrators implemented its new approach to education, much as it tried in 2016, when Watts and his team implemented an Arizona-based program with an academic parent and teacher team approach to set measurable goals to improve academics (see Midvale Journal’s “Midvale Elementary Introduced New Program To Boost Academic Learning”). 

Watts became Midvale Elementary’s principal about one year before the school was put on turnaround status, when the school’s state academic test scores dipped to amongst the lowest in the state. 

This fall’s program, which includes a social and emotional part as well as an academic portion, re-emphasized those home visits of its 750 students.

“We’re developing relationships with the families, making them understand their part of the community and the importance of academic success,” Watts said.

That alone is critical, he said, but also challenging as the school has about a 30 percent mobility rate, and serves a sizable population of students who are refugees or are experiencing homelessness. About 60 percent of the dual immersion Spanish-speaking school population’s native language is Latino-based and 300 students are English learners, Rigby said.

The school began with restructuring its day, moving the free and reduced breakfast time earlier and introducing a morning meeting to help students focus on the day as well as connect with their classmates and school. 

Social-emotional assistance

The plan called for adding a social and emotional support team, led by Assistant Principal Ashley McKinney.

The team includes a school psychologist, school counselor, social worker, and this year, adding in two full-time behavior assistants, to address social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students, Watts said, adding that the plan is pro-active instead of reactive.

“We want them to have the social skills so they know how to deal with situations before melting down, running out of class and not returning. We used to spend 80 percent of our time on behavior crisis, but now it’s 10 percent, if that. This allows our faculty to have classroom instruction,” he said.

McKinney said that about 25 percent of the student body need additional assistance with their social skills.

“Some of our students are refugees, and may have different traumatic experiences and history; 197 students are homeless, some are doubled up in housing that is creating stress for our students,” she said. “We need to respond to these kids’ social and emotional needs if we are to reach them academically. When life gets overwhelming, it causes grief, anxiety, anger and all sorts of emotions. We need to support these students and give them skills on how to cope so they can be successful.”

McKinney said the team is working with these students during some of their art and physical education time and the outcomes have been significant.

“Their overall attendance has increased, which is big. It’s hard to serve the kids if they aren’t here. We used to have a quarter of our students chronically absent and that’s hard if we want to meet their social, emotional and academic needs,” she said.

Academics

That has a direct impact on the academic side of the program, led by Rigby, includes two achievement coaches, to review curriculum and help with reading intervention.

“If I’m dealing with social and emotional behaviors, then I’m losing instructional time. We need to support our students in all ways to achieve the best outcomes,” she said.

Watts said on the academic side, the instruction was switched to a two-teacher model.

“This allows our teachers to focus on teaching those subjects, and reteaching those lessons again, reducing planning time on other instruction,” he said.

For example, Canyons School District’s teacher of the Year Jessica Beus teaches math and science to third-grade students while her counterpart focuses on language arts.

“It’s been awesome to focus on just math and science,” she said. “It’s been a lot more beneficial.”

Watts said the method is effective for assuring students understand the material presented, which includes new phonics and new math programs.

“Teachers have time to be better prepared teaching the core curriculum and are being observed so the best practices are resulting in better outcomes for kids,” he said.

Rigby said teams are scheduled to meet weekly to discuss content, but often meetings occur daily.

“If we want the best for our students, we have to do the best we can,” she said. “We are motivated by the success stories we are seeing. It’s when a student finally gets what we’re teaching – that’s the joy. Three or four months ago, there was a student who got 100 percent on a test, and before that same student was achieving only 30 or 40 percent. I was almost in tears; the kid was almost in tears. That’s the joy, seeing real progress.”

Results

Watts said that already has been proven evident.

“We shared our data after the restricting plan with the State Board and the impact it has had on our students. The Board was impressed with the growth and the components of our plan,” he said. “We are celebrating what is happening and want to duplicate and triplicate our success.”