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Canyons superintendent weighs in on those dissatisfied with public education

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 12 2011 10:44 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Poor results and crumbling schools contribute to a perception many Utahns have that the state's public schools are under-performing, according to Canyons School District Superintendent David Doty.

Speaking about a Utah Foundation report on quality of life Wednesday, Doty said public schools are not performing as well as they should be, and residents aren't happy about it.

"Public schools in Utah, unfortunately, are not showing very good outcomes," he said. "It's eroding public confidence in the school system."

According to the Utah Foundation report released last month, Utahns place a lot of value on public education, yet have the perception that the state's schools do poorly. Out of 20 quality of life factors, those surveyed reported education was the second most important thing impacting quality of life — only security ranked higher. Yet those same survey-takers ranked Utah's performance in education 14th best out of the 20 factors.

Leaders from Intermountain Healthcare, the Salt Lake Chamber, Envision Utah and the Utah Foundation also spoke at Wednesday's breakfast dialogue.

Doty said he has seen the reality of lagging education results in his own district. About 52 percent of the graduates from Canyons high schools who entered Utah Valley University this spring needed to take remedial math, he said.

What's more, when given the ACT college entrance exam last spring, 11th-graders at Canyons high schools were largely unprepared for college.

The ACT sets "college-readiness" benchmarks within each test subject that reflect the minimum score needed to give students a 50 percent chance of earning a "B" or higher and a 75 percent chancing of earning a "C" or higher in a typical first-year college course.

"We only have about 23-24 percent of our high school seniors who can meet all of those benchmarks, meaning that they're college ready across the board," he said. The state average of college-ready students is 27 percent.

Infrastructure concerns also likely contribute to the public's perception of failing schools. The average age of schools in his district is 39 years, Doty said.

"These school buildings are refuges for those kids and when those buildings start to crumble and they start to age, people start to have real questions about their quality of life and the quality of the schools," he said.

Doty said his district has begun focusing on kindergarten through eighth grades to turn those numbers around. They'll focus on making sure they're on track at each step of the way — especially in reading.

"We are talking about the eighth grade and getting every kid on track for college readiness by eight grade," he said.

The district will reconfigure grades to put ninth-graders into high schools and sixth-graders into middle schools. That will enable the schools to focus more on those eighth-graders, he said. The district will also give ACT exams to all 11th-graders, as well as preparation exams to eighth- and 10th-graders.

The district has improved kindergarten reading performance significantly, getting the number of children ready to enter first grade up to 85 percent — that's up from 65 percent the previous year. Canyons will also use bond funds to renovate and rebuild some of the district's oldest schools.

"We're seeing some great results," he said. "I think we have to continue to address academic rigor, I think we have to continue to raise the level of expectation for our students. ... We have to invest."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, Twitter: mollyfarmer

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