Lawmakers, school principals discuss best practices for at-risk students

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 3:53 p.m. MDT

Principals from several Utah schools were invited to the Education Task Force meeting to describe how the schools remain high-achieving despite the challenges of large at-risk student populations. (Shutterstock) Principals from several Utah schools were invited to the Education Task Force meeting to describe how the schools remain high-achieving despite the challenges of large at-risk student populations. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Principals from some of Utah's most demographically challenged but high-achieving schools were invited to Thursday's meeting of the Education Task Force to discuss the successes of their students.

The represented schools, from Cache Valley to Utah County, all received A or B grades from the recent school grading report cards, but Senate President Wayne Niederhauser commented that he would have expected grades of D or F based on their socio-economic characteristics.

"You’re doing something right and we’re discovering that here today," he said.

In his presentation, Chris Gesteland, principal of Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City, mentioned his school's use of intervention courses in math and reading, incentive pay for educators and professional development. But he also added part of the school's success is because of a culture of learning created within the community.

"One of the most important things that we’ve done is really help to train our kids to believe that they can be successful, that they can be successful at high levels," Gesteland said. "We want the kids to believe that they’re capable and as that culture changes, we have found that not only are kids more engaged in schools, their parents are more engaged in school and our community partners are more likely to be engaged as well."

Brian Conley, principal of Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City, said there are a lot of practices that correlate with increased student performance, but it's hard to determine a specific cause.

But he also shared some of the school's successes, including raising the average student reading level from fourth to seventh grade in four years and lifting the percentage of students at a sufficient or substantial writing level to 86 percent.

He attributed some of this success to the school's use of performance data and professional learning communities to identify the needs of students. He said teachers meet each day in morning intervention meetings, where student performance is looked at in detail to determine what course of action should be taken.

"The most important piece of our data at Northwest is 'what are you going to do next?'" Conley said.

The school has structured a comprehensive after-school program staffed completely with certified teachers to allow more instruction time for those students that need more exposure and access to the material, he said. Also, the Northwest Middle School staff is encouraged to focus on the school's positives, rather than dwell in negativity.

"Ninety-five percent of our students are doing the right thing 95 percent of the time," he said.

Most of the principals who presented during Thursday meetings came from Title 1 schools, or schools with high at-risk populations that receive additional funding from the federal government.

Several of the principals spoke about the crucial role those Title 1 funds play in their planning and intervention for at-risk students, as well as other revenue sources like the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which distributes money each year in the form of trust fund dividends.

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City, commented that she regularly hears the argument that "you can't just throw money" at schools to improve student performance and asked the principals from Salt Lake School District whether their high scores would be possible without Title 1 and SITLA funding.

"Overall, would you say that you could’ve done the things you’ve done without additional resources to make some of those choices?" she asked.

Conley and Gesteland both answered no, as did Rebecca Pittam, principal of Washington Elementary, whose presentation focused on the role that teacher aids and para-professionals play in the classrooms at her school.

"If we didn’t have land trust and we didn’t have Title 1, we wouldn’t have money for (para-professionals)," she said.

Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, asked whether teaching at a Title 1 school was like pole vaulting, in that a person can study the theory of the sport but can't be competitive without real-world practice.

Gesteland said that educational training is important for finding effective teachers, but there is a personality aspect that makes someone a good fit for a school with low-income and highly diverse students.

"You can’t walk into a Title 1 school thinking, 'I’m coming to my job,'" Conley said. "It’s got to be more than that."

Borrowing Draxler's sports metaphor, Conley said there are many excellent teachers at Glendale Middle School, but the school really saw success when they came together as a team.

"They were like the incredible 100-meter dash sprinter," he said. "We needed to put together the math football team where everybody relies on everybody."

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