VERNAL Sometime next year, West Middle School will become the first Utah school shuttered for failing to meet the federal education standards established under No Child Left Behind.
The path to this ignominious fate is littered with frequent administration changes; a student exodus to better-performing schools; seemingly unsolvable attendance and behavior problems; and claims of racism on a campus that serves mostly Native American students.
The Uintah School Board voted in November to close West after it failed to make adequate yearly progress for the seventh straight year. The board had planned to bus the school's student body 20 miles east to a pair of Vernal schools; however, at a specially called meeting Wednesday night, board members agreed to build a new K-8 school on the site shared by West and Todd Elementary School.
"We're happy with the decision," said Ramalda Guzman, chairwoman of the Ute Tribe Education Board, following the meeting. "We're going to do our best to prove to (the school board) that we have do have a good community and want good things for our students."
Uintah School District curriculum director Leonard Sullivan, during a phone interview with the Deseret Morning News earlier in the day, outlined the challenges the district has faced during the past six years as it tried to raise academic proficiency at West.
Sullivan said West had been tagged as a poor academic performer even before NCLB came along in 2001.
"Pretty much, West had been identified as not making enough progress right from the start of No Child Left Behind," Sullivan said.
In 2001, the district named A.J. Pease as West's principal. He implemented a "reality therapy" program, Sullivan said, that encouraged students to evaluate the outcome of their behavior and how they could change that outcome by making different choices.
At the same time, West had a Title I support provider from the Utah State Office of Education working in the school. There was also funding from a drug-free and violence-free grant.
After two years, Pease left West. He was followed by Bart Stevens, whose tenure also lasted two years. Stevens was followed by Deena Millecam, but she stayed just one year. Millecam was replaced at the start of the 2006-07 school year by current principal, Deborah Clarke.
"We haven't had a principal who didn't ask to leave; who didn't say, 'OK, I'm ready for a different experience now,"' Sullivan said about the administrative turnover.
"The community has to value a principal enough so that the principal wants to stay," Sullivan said. "You can't beat them up and have them want to stay there very long."
During each principal's time on the job, the district implemented a variety of programs aimed at bolstering academic proficiency math and language arts consultants, rewards for students who attended school and participated in class, even federally mandated after-school tutoring. However, any progress made was incremental.
Meanwhile, student numbers have dwindled. NCLB allows parents to withdraw their children from an under-performing school and transfer them elsewhere. Sullivan said the district had to give parents that option beginning in 2002.
"We had a number of parents who used that opportunity to move their kids out," Sullivan said.
"Before that time the school was probably running at 240 students," Sullivan said. "Gradually, over the course of time, we're down to where we've got 125 students now."
Each student that left took $2,600 with them. The money followed students to their new schools. The reduced funding meant some programs at West had to be cut.
Sullivan said the district does have money for a few extracurricular activities at West but has been unable to find anyone willing to accept a part-time job teaching band, for instance, when they could get a full-time job teaching the same subject at another school.
The district had offered teachers a $5,000 stipend this school year to teach at West. Sullivan said no one has accepted the money.
Attendance has been a continuing problem. Sullivan said several times West has met the testing requirements to attain NCLB's "safe harbor" status, but failed to satisfy the attendance standard, resulting in overall failure to make adequate yearly progress.
During the past two years, a counselor at West has been tracking attendance.
The Ute Tribe, which employs many parents of West students, operates on a four-day work week, taking Fridays off. Tribal employees are paid every other Thursday, and the tribe also pays out dividends to its members at regular intervals.
"We tend to experience more absenteeism on Fridays, (tribal) paydays and (tribal) dividend days than on other days," Sullivan said.
"The issue is behavior just as much as it is attendance," Uintah Schools Superintendent Charles Nelson said at the board meeting Wednesday. Nelson did not elaborate, but tribal officials at the meeting said they are working to address gang-related issues in their community.
Some students have claimed they are subjected to racist insults by their teachers. At past school board meetings, parents and members of the Ute Tribe Education Committee, have leveled allegations of racist behavior at school and district officials.
Sullivan said the accusations are inconsistent with what he's seen, but he can't say that there's never been an inappropriate comment made by a teacher.
"I think sometimes everybody winds up making a comment that's not appropriate. Are they blatantly racist? I don't think so," Sullivan said.He believes much of the problem is that teachers "don't understand the tribe's complaint about Native American culture being neglected in the classroom," he said. "Teachers are interested in teaching the subject matter to the kids; they want to educate the kids."