Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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.

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.

Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley said the deadline for requesting a reconfiguration for the 2013-14 school year is June 30. In addition to Granger, Cottonwood High and Kearns High have looked at reconfiguring, but it is unclear if they will pursue a change for next year.

Pettersson said Canyons School District looked at national research and data that suggest the transition between ninth and 10th grades is a critical time when high school dropouts occur. She also said approximately 90 percent of similarly sized school districts use a four-year high school system.

"We looked at these high-performing states that were doing better than us and said, 'What are we doing different?'" she said.

In lieu of a district-wide change, Granite School District allows individual communities flexibility to petition for reconfigurations after engaging in public discussion and surveys. Haslam said mailers were distributed, in English and Spanish, informing residents of the possible change and asking them to take part in an online survey.

Of the 385 respondents, 73.5 percent were in favor of moving freshmen to Granger High School, 22 percent were opposed and 4.5 percent said they needed more information.

Haslam said he was encouraged by the support in the community and has tried to respond to the concerns of individuals opposed to the change. Some parents are worried about bullying, abuse or dating issues when 14-year-old freshmen and 18-year-old seniors are in school together.

Haslam said he's sensitive to those concerns but added that in looking at other four-year schools in Utah and around the country, he does not see evidence of increased negative student interaction.

"We'll do everything possible to ensure a safe environment," Haslam said.

Pettersson said similar concerns were raised in the Canyons community prior to the board of education's decision to reconfigure grades in February 2010. But she said the district is focused on providing a positive learning environment and is developing plans to help students coexist.

She said her own experience as an elementary school teacher convinced her that sixth-graders are developmentally more at home in middle school. 

"It was a real challenge for me to keep those kids engaged in an elementary setting," she said.

Pettersson said Canyons' decision to reconfigure was primarily academic and the district has made boundary changes and entered into bonds for new buildings to address the secondary effects of student populations.

Because of the effect that reconfigurations have on a school's student populations, classroom space is often a determining factor of what format a district will use. Granger's reconfiguration is helped by a new building, which was planned before administrators looked at reconfiguration, and Horsley said growth in Granite has stabilized in recent years, allowing more flexibility to make configuration decisions.

The construction of a new Granger High School is a natural time to re-examine the placement of ninth grade students, Haslam said.

"I think we'll be able to house all of our students in the school," he said. "It comes down to academics. We want our students to have every chance to earn their diplomas."

He said the administrations at Valley and West Lake junior high schools are also supportive of the change. He said many junior high students have an attitude that their grades don't matter until ninth grade and by removing freshmen from the schools they will be able to create a new mindset and better focus on the needs of their students.

"We're excited," Haslam said. "We really think we can do great things."