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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Midvale Elementary School kindergarten student Jacob Ortega dances during a transition activity in Midvale on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

MIDVALE — The Canyons Board of Education is asking the state school board for more time to implement a restructuring plan for Midvale Elementary School, which administrators say has already resulted in student growth since it was put in place at the start of the school year.

In 2015, Midvale Elementary was identified by state education officials as a turnaround school, which means it had three years to improve student performance or face sanctions that can include transferring control of the school to another entity other than the local school board, involuntary transfers of teachers or school administrators, or other consequences.

Midvale's school grade was a "D" in 2015, according to the state report card, which has been largely based on results of year-end state assessments, but was recently revamped to include other factors.

Three years later, Midvale Elementary's school grade was an "F.

Turnaround schools are those in the lowest 3 percent of student achievement statewide as measured by end-of-year SAGE tests in math, language arts and science. SAGE is short for Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence.

Schools identified as a state's lowest performing receive grants and assistance from experts intended to increase student achievement. The school forms a turnaround committee that includes parents, educators, a school administrator and the local school board representative.

In October 2018, state education officials announced that Midvale Elementary, and three other public schools, had not made sufficient progress to exit turnaround status.

But instead of appointing an operator other than the local school board, transferring control to another entity, or closing the school and redrawing boundaries of neighboring schools — which is what as the Granite Board of Education did recently after Oquirrh Elementary School did not exit turnaround status — Canyons wants the state board to consider allowing it to "take other action."

Principal Chip Watts said everything he has read and learned from school turnaround experts that worked with the school says "it takes five to seven years to really turn a failing school around and build a culture that will sustain that change."

Backed by the district's board of education, Midvale Elementary's faculty and staff want the opportunity to fully implement the plan created with input from its school community, school turnaround experts and from other training educators have undergone, he said.

"I'm optimistic that in another few years Midvale will be in a much different place, a much better place. I'm hoping that the state will support us in the plan that we're implementing this year. I think the data is very encouraging and the growth that we're seeing, just the feeling in the school is very encouraging. It's taken us a while to find our groove," Watts said.

After implementing the plan last fall, the school's DIBEL — or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — scores in math and English language arts "exceed any growth achieved by Midvale students in the last three years," according to a letter from the Canyons school board to the Utah State Board of Education.

The school's youngest students "are blowing it out of the water. The kindergarteners are way above where they're expected to be by this point in the year," he said.

Since the plan was put into place, there have been 9,000 fewer incidents of tardiness. Among 188 discipline referrals, only 40 students have been sent to the school office more than once, according to school data.

Classroom teachers have made 107 home visits to better connect with students and their families and work together on concerns, according to school data.

The restructuring plan maximizes instructional time. For example, school breakfast was moved to 15 minutes before the start of the school day. Now the first 15 to 20 minutes of the day are used for an educational purpose.

The school also added a "social emotional support team" led by a full-time assistant principal.

The team includes a school psychologist, social worker, school counselor and two behavior assistants — all full-time employees — as well as a community liaison.

The team is implementing a schoolwide plan "to address social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students."

Meanwhile, the school's academic support team, also led by a full-time assistant principal, includes two achievement coaches and 14 teaching assistants.

The school is using a two-teacher model that allows and encourages educators to teach to their strengths. For example, one teacher can teach math to all students in the grade while his or her colleague instructs English language arts.

Planning time is effectively doubled because the number of subjects is cut in half, the plan states.

"Teachers and students will benefit from a 'second teach' since all teachers will have the chance to reflect, modify and improve their teaching each day using the same content and lesson plans," according to the restructuring plan.

Students' achievement and growth is carefully tracked by regular assessments.

Watts said the school is fortunate in that the Canyons Board and district administration have agreed with the approach and provided funding to hire new employees needed to fully implement the plan.

Midvale is a Title I school that serves 772 students. The school has about a 30 percent mobility rate, and serves a sizable population of students who are refugees or are experiencing homelessness. According to school's 2016-17 state report card, 43 percent of Midvale Elementary students are English learners and more than 80 percent of the students are low income.

While the school attempts to buttress its educational mission with community partnerships and its school nutrition program, some things that impact students and academic performance are out of their control.

For example, earlier this week a mother was taken into custody by immigration officers shortly after she dropped her children off at school. The events had a chilling effect on the school with some parents afraid to leave their homes and other fearful of sending their kids to school.

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Watts said the school does its best to reassure students and their families and keep them on track to achieve its goals, which include 60 percent of Midvale students achieving the expected level of growth or better in reading fluency by May, according to DIBELS tests.

"Things are going really well. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll come off the turnaround list. The culture that we've changed and built at Midvale is going to be something that moves forward for years and results in better outcomes for kids and for our community. I'm optimistic, absolutely," Watts said.