Several Utah high schools moving to 4-year format

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Lockers inside the old Granite High campus Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011. At least one Granite School District high school is asking the Board of Education to approve a grade reconfiguration.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Three-year high schools are losing ground in Utah as a number of schools are set to reconfigure in the fall of 2013.

Ninth-graders in Canyons School District will see a district-wide shift to a four-year high school system for the 2013-14 academic year and at least one Granite School District high school is asking its board of education for a similar change.

In both cases, the changes are an attempt to improve academic performance and are facilitated by the construction of new high schools to house students, school officials said.

Jerry Haslam, principal of Granite's Granger High School, said his school has the lowest graduation rate in the district, a designation he hopes to shed by working with students from their first day as freshmen.

"I need ownership of my kids all four years," he said. "The ninth grade is part of their high school experience."

In Canyons School District, all elementary, middle and high schools will be reconfigured in fall 2013, part of a district campaign to increase academic rigor that has prompted the commission of new buildings and changed school boundaries. Coinciding with the opening of the district's fifth high school, Corner Canyon, sixth-grade students will move to middle schools and freshmen will be placed in high schools.

"The piece of a four-year high school is just one piece of the puzzle," said Hollie Pettersson, Canyons' director of evidence-based learning for secondary schools.

Twenty of Utah's school districts currently use a four-year high school system, compared to 16 school districts with three-year high schools, according to the Utah State Office of Education. High schools in the Beaver, Daggett, Piute and Tintic school districts have seventh- through twelfth-graders and Garfield School District has both 7-12 and 9-12 high schools.

Mary Burbank, director of the Urban Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Utah, said there isn't definitive data that student performance improves in a four-year high school, but she said it's understandable to want consistency between the freshman and senior years.

"You have that continuity in the sense of faculty and curriculum," she said. "Intuitively, it makes sense."

But for many districts, intuition and speculation aren't enough to necessitate the time, planning and potential taxpayer dollars involved in large-scale configuration shifts.

"I think different alignments are going to affect individual students in an individual way," said Anthony Godfrey, administrator of schools for Jordan School District.

Godfrey said Jordan School District has used a three-year high school system since the 1980s and he can't recall any discussions about changing back to four years. 

"We haven't looked at it recently," he said. "We would require additional buildings so it would be very expensive."

Burbank said in most cases, grade configurations are based on a combination of tradition, philosophy and the economics of staffing and classroom space. Most of Utah's three-year districts content to maintain the current configuration. In recent years, the Ogden School District moved away from the four-year system. Ogden's director of secondary education was unavailable for comment.

Under the proposed Granger reconfiguration, Valley and West Lake junior high schools will house seventh- and eighth-grade students with freshmen from both schools being moved to the newly constructed Granger High. The community councils of all three of the schools met last week, Haslam said, and approved the plan. They are expected to present the Granite Board of Education with a formal request in the next couple of weeks.

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