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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Fifth-graders Larry Robles and Max Workman read together at Dee Elementary School in Ogden on Thursday, September 13, 2012. Despite being listed as one of the state's 10 worst schools Dee Elementary has dramatically increased their student performance.

OGDEN — Last year, Dee Elementary School in Ogden had the worst student proficiency scores in Utah.

In all, five Ogden School District elementary schools claimed spots in the bottom 10 worst performing schools in the state. 

Not any more.

In just one year, the percentage of students proficient in language arts – based on the state's Criterion-Referenced Tests, or CRTs – has increased by double-digits in Ogden's worst-performing schools. Scores in math and science still lag, but showed modest gains as student literacy in the district improved. 

The state's school-specific CRT reports will not be finalized until November, but the jump in language proficiency should knock at least four Ogden schools out of the "bottom 10" designation they've held for years.

"What happens in the classroom was previously unacceptable," said Ogden Superintendent Brad Smith. "What changed was a cold hard look at what instruction meant in those buildings and teachers having the basic mental toughness, the basic humility, to say 'whatever we were doing before has not worked'."

Smith said his first reaction to seeing the scores was "WOW!" – which he specified should be spelled in all-caps with an exclamation point – but added that he, along with administrators and teachers, is not satisfied.

"No one who's working hard in my district is," he said. "I've got people who are doing the work. Right now, today they are doing the work and they're engaged. They're working hard and most importantly they're getting results."

Smith's appointment to superintendent last year was followed by sweeping administrative changes that garnered controversy as nearly all of the district's school principals were uprooted and re-shuffled to new assignments.

He said the changes were individually calculated to match the best administrator with the school where they could affect the greatest change. He also said that, if necessary, more changes could be on the way.

"Does it mean that I intend for people to live with a gun to their head? No," he said. "It does mean that I wake up every day saying 'three out of four of my kids are not proficient in math for this economy and if I can't produce kids that are at least proficient in algebra I'm condemning them to a lifetime or more-likely-than-not sub-par life."

Beyond leadership changes, a visible difference in the Ogden School District is a heavy reliance on assessment data to tailor instruction to individual students. At the district offices, charts and graphs representing each school in the district line the hallway outside of the office of Rich Nye, district assessment coordinator. Similar "data walls" can be found at individuals schools, breaking down proficiency rates by grade and class and showing trends across several years, in an effort to increase buy-in by parents and students.

"We're encouraging the schools at their level, in their halls, to have different data walls, charts, graphs, things of that nature to help students also see what's occurring," Nye said.

Dee and Odyssey Elementary Schools saw the most dramatic increases in language arts scores. At Dee, formerly the state's worst performing school, 74 percent of students tested proficient in language arts last spring, compared with 42 percent the year before. At Odyssey, another "Bottom 10" school in 2011, the percentage of students proficient in language arts increased from 47 to 73.

At both schools, every student qualifies for free or reduced lunch and roughly half the student body speaks English as a second language. Both schools also received a new principal in 2010, plucked from the administration at Ogden High School.

But the physical structures the two schools occupy are quite different. Where Odyssey is a modern building – built within the past 10 years and complete with a replica space shuttle protruding from the school's roof – Dee School is a 1970s-era architectural experiment with all classrooms occupying a wide-open circular second floor where sight and sound is unimpeded by walls.

Prior to last summer, teachers used bookshelves and cabinets to form makeshift dividers between classroom spaces and Principal Sondra Jolovich-Motes said when she arrived she worked to remove the clutter and install portable partitions.

"It helps a little bit with the sound," she said. "We took out 25 huge truckloads of extra furniture."

Jolovich-Motes – affectionately referred to as "Mrs. JM" by her students and staff – said she viewed the assignment to administrate the school as a "huge honor and responsibility." She said she spent hours meeting with each member of the staff, with many expressing frustration that they consistently struggled to see the outcomes of their teaching efforts.

"My staff took a big leap of faith with me," she said. "I realized we needed to think bigger and be audacious."

What followed were changes that included the creation of action plans for each individual student as opposed to whole grades, a greater focus on vocabulary, more effective use of community volunteers, breaking math instruction up into several segments throughout the day and constantly reminding students that they were part of an effort to improve the lowest-performing school in Utah.

"It wasn't something we hid," Jolovich-Motes said. "Our parents helped us. Their students read and attendance approved."

She said the school set the goal of a 60 percent proficiency rate and, in accordance with the district plan, focused on literacy as a way to approve performance in all subjects and repeatedly tracked, re-evaluated and adjusted student education and assessments throughout the year.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, the school exceeded its goal in language arts by 14 percent.

"When we've exceeded it to 74 percent, my staff knows anything is possible and my kids now know anything is possible," she said. "If you want to transform a school, everyone at the school has to realize it's not numbers; every number is a child."

At Odyssey Elementary, Principal Dale Wilkinson – who worked as Jolovich-Motes' assistant principal at Ogden High – had never worked in an elementary before getting his new assignment in 2010. He said he initially assumed the job would be a "cake walk," but within five minutes of stepping through the door he knew he was in for a lot of hard work.

He said Odyssey had a dedicated staff and smart students, but was struggling to overcome the particular challenges inherent with a lower-income inner-city school.

"I think the biggest issue, to be honest, was establishing the belief that it could be done," Wilkinson said. "By January the kids had bought in and we saw an increased level of effort and belief in themselves."

The school implemented many of the same practices as Dee Elementary and other schools in the district. The day's attendance numbers were posted on the front doors, graphs and charts of each grade's assessment scores lined the hallways and teachers worked in groups to align classroom focus on key concepts and to craft individualized goals for each struggling student.

Moving forward, Wilkinson said he's working to enhance the science programs at Odyssey. He said he was surprised by the added jump in student's science CRT scores and that the school was looking to partner with members of the community to bring engineering and scientific experiences to the school that students otherwise wouldn't be introduced to.

"I want to re-brand the school as a place where special things happen," he said.

Cindy Bray, a school counselor at Odyssey, credited Wilkinson with infusing the school with positive leadership. She said the staff and students saw that they needed to work together in order to achieve any significant change.

"No matter how hard the teachers work and how well they teach, the kids have to be a part of it," she said. "Now we understand that we're all working together on this."

Odyssey kindergarten teacher Lorelee Tallman said teachers take ownership of every student, not just those in their particular classes, and celebrate the successes of individual children. The state begins tracking student performance after the third grade but Ogden schools, Tallman said, begin processing and tracking student data in kindergarten to keep kids from falling behind grade level.

She said the proactive approach to individualized teaching and data-tracking the district has taken also allows teachers to monitor progress and make alterations as necessary throughout the year, as opposed to waiting until statewide numbers are released in the fall when a new school year has already begun.

"We can track that trajectory through the year which is huge," she said. "It gives (the students) a chance to perform on more than one occasion."

Smith said he's sympathetic to the deluge of data that is sometimes "vomited" onto schools and teachers by district IT departments. He said district officials work to sift through the piles of data generated by student assessments in order to narrow down on the most effective and telling information to empower teachers.

But Smith was quick to say that the district has had "oodles and gobs of data" for a long time, but it hasn't changed anything. More than the charts, graphs and wonky number-crunching, Smith said he credits an attitude of focused leadership and urgent improvement for transforming schools in the district. He said teachers are now accustomed to receiving truthful, sometimes painful, feedback and in turn they are given substantial support to make the necessary reforms in their classrooms.

"There's no great magic here," Smith said. "It sounds incredibly simple, and I suppose on some level it is, but which of us are really willing to engage in introspection and correct our behavior and change our ways."

On Monday, the district will hold a "Movin' On Up" event, celebrating the success of Ogden schools. The celebration, which will include remarks by KSL-TV's Deanie Whimmer, will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Ogden School District campus.

KSL will show a special half-hour of coverage Monday, 6:30 p.m., focused on the reading programs and success of the schools.