Teachers at top schools cite collaborative efforts

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 7:59 p.m. MDT

SMITHFIELD, Cache County — Teachers at the state's top-scoring school attribute their success to collaboration.

They meet almost weekly as grade levels at Summit School in Cache County to discuss proven teaching strategies and how to help individual students excel.

"We talk about what we are seeing and how we can strengthen each other and the school," said Don Sheffer, a fourth-grade teacher who has been at Summit for 20 years. "We diagnose needs and figure out how we can address those needs."

They call these strategy meetings between teachers Professional Learning Communities, and the principal at Summit School, Jack Robinson, said this model "has made all the difference."

Despite being a low-income school, Summit had the highest average math and language arts Criterion Reference Test score (or state test score) for elementary schools with more than 250 students in the state last year, according to a Deseret Digital Media school ranking analysis released Monday night.

Coming in at second was another Cache County school, Mountainside Elementary, which also implemented the Professional Learning Communities model several years ago.

To create the elementary school ranking analysis, Deseret Digital Media (DDM), which manages the websites for KSL, Deseret News and Deseret Book, took the average percentage of students in each public school in Utah who scored above proficient on language arts and math and ranked them accordingly.

DDM broke down the data into schools with more than 250 students and schools with 250 or fewer students.

The team of analysts also created a group of outlier elementary schools, which included schools that had 25 students or fewer and schools that reported two or fewer grades per testing category. A total of 617 elementary schools were analyzed.

Many of the top schools said they have tried new practices in the past several years that they believe raised their test scores to the highest in the state.

Canyon Crest Elementary in Provo School District, which had the third highest average state test score in the state at 93.39 percent proficient, implemented a tutoring program two years ago where five tutors would come to the school for most of the day and spend time in each classroom, helping students who struggle in language and math, said the school's testing coordinator, Adele Youd.

Canyon Crest also tests their students each week on concepts they should be learning in language arts and math and then devotes the last 30 minutes of the day, four days a week, to either help those kids who have not mastered the concepts catch up or to provide an enrichment activity for the students who understand the material.

"In the world today, we have to know how well our kids are doing," said Youd, who has been part of the school system for over 25 years. "We have to prepare them to be better writers, better readers, better mathematicians and to understand technology. They just have to know things they didn't have to know 28 years ago."

Mt. Loafer School in Nebo School District, which had an average proficiency rate of 92.99 percent and had the fifth highest rank for large schools in the state, attributed its success to a new instructional framework for its teachers, said Lana Hiskey, spokeswoman for the district.

And Bonneville School in Salt Lake City School District, who traditionally has done well on the state test scores, says it's because of parental support and volunteers, highly qualified teachers and administrators, an implementation of the arts, and a focus on introducing proven teaching strategies. This year the staff at the school is even reading and discussing a book called "Teach Like a Champion."

Many of the schools that performed the worst in the state have high poverty, high mobility and/or high numbers of students who are English language learners.

Ogden School District had five schools that ranked in the bottom 10: Dee School, James Madison, Thomas O. Smith, Gramercy and Odyssey.

"Ogden is a very different from other districts," said Greg Lewis, Odgen School District's executive director of curriculum and instruction. "There is no one even close to our demographics, and we have areas of very deep poverty. That's the real issue in Ogden."

Last year, Odgen had 77 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, a mobility rate of nearly 35 percent and 52 percent minority students. It also had 4.6 percent of its students listed as homeless.

"The parents in these areas are good parents," Lewis said. "They care about their kids and want the best for them, but they are very busy. A lot are working two jobs — some of the kids have never been on the freeway, let alone Salt Lake. They just haven't had experience, so their vocabulary is very limited."

Yet most of the Ogden schools listed in the bottom ten jumped at least 10 percent in their proficiency rates from 2009. And while just 30 percent of Ogden kindergartners were at grade level when they came to school last year, 90 percent were at benchmark by the end of the year, Lewis said. Three of the lowest performing schools in the Ogden School District have also gotten a $4.9 million School Improvement Grant to use over three years that has already helped the schools implement new practices, bring in tutors, new principals, add more instruction time to core subjects and have more professional training for its teachers.

"While most of these schools are scoring low, they are making progress," Lewis said.

Many schools around the state are currently finishing up the 2011 state tests, and John Jesse, assessment director for the state, said parents should have a frank conversation with their children about how well they did when the test scores come out.

"We're kind of afraid in our society about confronting students on their abilities and their efforts and achievements," Jesse said. "But ultimately, who's really going to change what students know and are able to do? Who's really going to control that? The student. Realistically, what can the parent control? They can help improve their school, and they can most improve their school by improving what their student can do."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company