Utah’s lowest performing schools improve after receiving federal aid

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Federal aid to help improve student test scores appears to be working as schools focus on professional development and curriculum changes.

In 2010, seven of the lowest performing schools in Utah were given the more than $13 million and three years to improve students’ test scores and the overall quality of their institutions. The School Improvement Grants are allowing schools to progress as they focus on professional development and curriculum changes.

Of the schools which received the School Improvement Grants, four made adequate yearly progress in math and language arts after one year of extra funding, and six schools improved students’ performance. Before the grants were awarded, only three of schools met the adequate yearly progress standard. The grant recipients include Granger High in the Granite District; Dee, James A. Madison and Odyssey elementaries in the Ogden District; Glendale and Northwest Middle Schools in the Salt Lake City District; and Bluff Elementary in the San Juan District,

Each school applied for the grants and followed a transformational model to improve the school’s performance, which included hiring new principals, monitoring students’ standardized test scores, and providing extensive professional development. The schools presented specific goals for improvement and report to the state, their district and outside consultants as they implement their plans.

The Granite School District was awarded $2 million to improve performance at Granger High School.  After changes such as lowering class sizes and increasing professional development, the school made average yearly progress for the first time since the measure has been kept.

“Having grant money to lower class sizes and hire coaches to help encourage students to succeed and to follow up with students seems to be helping,” said Richard Clawson, a math teacher at Granger High, in an email. “As far as the math department we have a great group of teachers that are working together and we have seen some improvement.”

Teachers are at the heart of many of the changes schools are making, with most of each district’s money going in to professional development. In the Ogden School District, the three elementary schools are depending on curriculum changes to propel them into success, as they adopted the Singapore Math Method in their kindergarten through third grades. Teachers are receiving training as the curriculum changes, which results in more work for teachers who may already feel overworked.

“This change requires looking at things differently and it’s difficult,” said Dave Wilkinson, principal of Odyssey Elementary. “Teachers put in a lot of effort and they have done that for a long time. And when you do that and you don’t see a lot of significant change, you wonder why.”

The change has been slow for James A. Madison Elementary, but principal Julie Palmer is confident that the curriculum improvements, faculty training and extended school days that were implemented last year will pay off eventually. The school made adequate yearly progress in the 2009-2010 school year but did not in the 2010-2011 year.

“We laid a lot of really good groundwork last year and last year that may or may not have shown up in our student achievement,” Palmer said. “This year we’re really focused on the quality of teaching and closely monitoring student learning.”

In the Salt Lake City District, which was awarded $5.35 million, the two middle schools made average yearly progress in language arts and math for the past two years. They are focusing their efforts on giving double periods in certain subjects for students who are non-proficient, professional development, teacher collaboration and bonuses for teachers if the school meets average yearly progress in math, language arts or social studies.

Bonuses for teachers are a large part of many schools’ spending from the grants, and can range from a flat rate of $500 to a percentage of a teacher’s salary equaling $10,200 in one instance. Northwest Middle School gave all of its teachers at least $3,400 in bonuses last year, and other schools such as Bluff Elementary also gave bonuses to all of their faculty.

Bluff Elementary, which received $750,000, has made significant progress after hiring an instructional coach and allowing for more teacher collaboration and parent involvement. Their adequate yearly progress has gone up by 25 percent in language arts and 18 percent in math in the 2010-2011 school year.

Although schools are making progress, principals and teachers alike worry that once the three-year grants are over, they will lose the progress they have made. Many schools are putting their energy into training teachers for the future, but for schools like Granger High, where seven new faculty members are being funded by the grant, the benefits that come with lower class sizes may be lost.

“What scares me is when I won’t have it and I have to make ends meet with our budget that is allocated to us from the district alone,” said Jerry Haslam, principal of Granger High School. “So we’re starting now to position our school to be able to retain those extra faculty members and everything we’ve accomplished.”

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