Utah's top education official is "clueless" and should leave the details of rural education to those who live in the sticks, the principal of Escalante High School told lawmakers this week.
Scott Bean, state superintendent of public education, has "lost touch with his rural roots," Escalante principal Ron Hitchcock said Wednesday.About 75 members of the Utah Legislature gathered in Garfield County as part of annual travels to places away from Utah's Wasatch Front, and Hitchcock, a former school counselor, had a captive audience at his school, located on Escalante's east end.
There are special considerations when educating students in a town like Escalante, population 1,000. And rural folks know themselves best, he said.
They know what programs will work in a place so out-of-the-way as to be designated "the most remote spot" in the lower 48 states by Car and Driver magazine; a place so remote it takes six hours to bus a football team to its competition; an area where there's not a single stoplight within three counties.
Hitchcock, formerly of Payson High School, knows how to best modify the state's EdNet televised learning program to suit his students.
He knows how to keep kids in class, even if it is by controversial means.
This is the principal, after all, who can count the 22 cars in the parking lot and tell you if every driving pupil has arrived for the day.
He can tell you that 70 students of the 135 enrolled have their drivers' licenses, that four get credit hours for working and about 15 have part-time jobs.
He knows there are seven minority students in his classrooms.
He knows the students so well - knows their experiences so thoroughly - he can tell a visitor a story about eight members of the track team, and a trip to Cedar City that revealed only seven of the eight had ever been to a movie house.
Hitchcock knows Escalante students could benefit from greater exposure. He knows they need "cultural enrichment." He knows how the young people learn in this area five hours southeast of Salt Lake City.
Scott Bean, according to Hitchcock does not.
Bean, who was contacted Thursday in Salt Lake City, disagrees.
"I fully understand what is happening in rural schools and know some things need to be changed," said Bean, a former superintendent of South Sanpete School District, based in Manti.
"What I think I hear you saying," said Rep. Trisha Beck, D-Sandy, "is that you need the flexibility to deal with your own population."
Yes, Hitchcock said. To be successful in Escalante, school officials must have local autonomy. Bean doesn't know what's best.
"He's clueless," Hitchcock said.
With 135 students in grades 7 through 12, Escalante is in its second of a five-year test of the four-day school week. Students, some bused an hour and 10 minutes to get to school, attend classes from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday and are off on Friday.
It's a great program that has boosted test scores and reduced discipline problems. Ninety percent of the residents love the system, he said. But Bean doesn't.
"He thinks our four-day week is broken and needs to be fixed. It's not broken."
Bean, who during his career has coached junior varsity basketball and tennis, has said he appreciates the value of activities but the school's primary mission is learning. "Emphasis needs to be on academic preparation and not on the activities that take them out of class," Bean said.
Another home-grown solution that runs against the grain of state acceptance is the school policy that bases 40 percent of a student's grade on attendance.
Hitchcock knows students will succeed if they come to school. So sickness or family vacations can happen but shouldn't happen much. Students are graded on whether they are in class on time, whether they stay the whole hour and whether they are "on-task" while they're there.
"School was in session while you've been here. Have you seen a single student out wandering the halls?" he asked.
Senior citizens and parents help keep track of students who wander, he said.
Hitchcock also told lawmakers about the $18 million Escalante Center, which joins the forces of the school district, BLM visitor center, museum, Southern Utah University and the Escalante Canyons Center for the Arts and Humanities.
Suzanne Winters, former science adviser to Gov. Mike Leavitt, has been hired to head up the center. She told lawmakers gathered at a town meeting in Tropic Wednesday the groups have a "dynamic vision" for the center.
Students will benefit by working closely with real artists, historians and scientists if the center becomes a reality, she said.