The start of the school year brings a mix of emotions among young people immersed in the pleasures of summer and among educators, who face a mix of challenges related to funding levels, teacher shortages and controversies over the best way to test student and educator performance. This year, like every year, education policymakers in Utah will spend considerable time and effort addressing all those issues, while on the ground level, individual schools and school districts will confront their own peculiar mixes of problems.
In that category, we are impressed by an effort undertaken by one of the state’s largest school districts to deal with the thorny problem of a low graduation rate among a sizable segment of its student population. The Canyons District has worked to address the needs of freshmen students at Hillcrest High School, which has a graduation rate of 76 percent, below the state’s overall rate of 84 percent. The district focused on data that show a high risk of dropping out among students who fail classes in their first quarter of high school. So it staged a seven-week summer “boot camp” for 80 students selected from Hillcrest’s two feeder middle schools. The students were invited to attend and asked to sacrifice 33 days of their summer to improve their chances of success when they walk through the doors as high school freshmen in the coming days.
The objective is to give students who may have struggled in middle school an initiation into the types of coursework they will encounter in high school to help them, as one official said, to get ahead before they fall behind. The approach is smart, sensible and innovative. It is a superb example of using data to identify a problem and attacking its root with a hands-on approach that speaks to the individual needs of individual students. Whether the program meets with success won’t be known for a few years, but the district deserves credit for trying it, and there are early indications it will work. Fifty-four students stuck with the program, an indication of personal commitment to improve their educational prospects. For that, those students and their families also deserve credit.
Improving the quality of public education in Utah has and will forever present unique challenges. Our demographics make it difficult to fund schools on a per-pupil basis as generously as do other states, even though we contribute a proportionately large percentage of public funds to education. The Canyons School District’s boot camp experiment is a commendable example of a tactical approach to dealing with a specific problem — one that happens to be at the heart of any education system’s principal mission — to make sure students who show up on the first day of school are still there when the bell rings on graduation day.