SALT LAKE CITY — After a total of three hours of discussion and debate, the Utah State Board of Education granted reprieves Friday to two schools facing sanctions after standardized tests showed worsening academic performance.
The board's vote means Midvale Elementary School and Entheos Academy, a charter school in Magna, have two years to improve outcomes and performance or face more rigorous sanctions.
Entheos Academy must report back to the board within a year on its progress and it is also required to meet with the State Charter School Board regarding earlier changes ordered by that board such as rotating out the longest-tenured members of the school's board of directors. The charter board authorized the school's charter.
Midvale Elementary, which is in Canyons School District, and Entheos Academy were part of a cohort of schools identified for school turnaround in 2015. Neither exited that status within three years, meaning their school grades either did not improve or worsened.
Turnaround schools are those in the lowest 3 percent of student achievement statewide as measured by end-of-year tests in math, language arts and science.
Schools identified as a state's lowest performing receive grants and assistance from experts intended to increase student achievement. A school forms a turnaround committee that includes parents, educators, a school administrator and the local school board representative.
Midvale Elementary School Principal Chip Watts told the board that he became principal of the school about a year before it was identified for turnaround.
"It's been an interesting few years to be honest with you, we've definitely learned a lot and overcome a lot of obstacles, but we haven't exited turnaround," he said.
After trying many approaches to improve the school's performance, Watts said the school has landed on a restructuring program that is showing promising results.
"We believe we've figured it out and we know how to do this," he said.
As evidence of the school's recent progress, Watts pointed to the school's DIBEL — or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — winter benchmarks.
Midvale's scores in math and English language arts "exceed any growth achieved by Midvale students in the last three years," according to a letter from the Canyons School Board to the Utah State Board of Education.
"The math data we're seeing, it completely blows me away," Watts said.
While the board was generally supportive of Midvale Elementary, board member Laura Belnap said she was reluctant to offer extensions to schools that have already had three years to turn around their school grade.
"It feels to me we're building the dam after the water is spilling over," Belnap said.
According to a State School Board news release, nearly 90 percent of 26 schools that entered Utah's school turnaround program in 2015 met exit criteria or qualified for an extension.
With respect to Midvale Elementary, board member Scott Neilson, who is a teacher, lauded the school's effort despite steep odds. The community has a high poverty rate, a third of the student body is experiencing homelessness and nearly half of its students are English language learners.
"I don't look at this like it's a failing school. I feel like we're dealing with something very special here with the clientele you have. Each one of these kids is one of Heavenly Father's children," he said, choking back emotion.
A state review panel's recommendations for Midvale Elementary and Entheos Academy, which were adopted by the board, called on the schools to undergo new comprehensive needs assessments and root cause analyses, and update their respective school improvement plans.
In Entheos Academy's case, school closure remains a possibility if it does not sufficiently improve in two years, according to the review panel's recommendations adopted by the state school board.
Board member Linda Hansen questioned leaders of Entheos Academy about high rates of bullying at the school, an issue that had been raised by parents, she said.
School director Brian Storrs attributed the problem to some students excelling and some not improving at all. "It was very polarizing," he said.
As the school has worked through its turnaround process, the school has experienced "a lot of changes in the last couple of years in "structure, culture, teacher retention and student retention."
Board member Jennifer Graviet remarked on the teacher salaries at the charter school and asked the school's administrator and directors what administrators were paid. The information was not immediately available, officials said.
Granite School District's Oquirrh Hills Elementary School was also among the 2015 cohort of turnaround schools. Last month, the Granite School District Board voted to close it.4 comments on this story
The state review panel that recommended extensions for both Midvale and Entheos Academy's Magna location made no recommendations regarding Oquirrh Hills since its closure rendered the conditions of the turnaround program moot.
Earlier in the day, Kearns Metro Township Mayor Kelly Bush addressed the board noting that since the school closure was announced in December "there has been a wake of deception and destruction that has gone on."
School turnaround legislation "was written to hold schools accountable in providing the best education for our children, and Granite used it to cover up the real purpose of the closure of the school. They abused it," Bush said.