On Wednesday, October 3rd, our owner Brandi Hammon sat down with Ogden School District Superintendent Brad Smith to talk about the goings-on at schools around Ogden. As it turns out, big things are happening in the Ogden School District - big things indeed.
In recent years, it's been no secret many Ogden schools have scraped the bottom of the barrel in state academic rankings. In fact, according to KSL, six of the elementary schools in Ogden ranked in the bottom 25 after the 2010-2011 school year. James Madison Elementary School and Dee Elementary School ranked 555th and 556th, respectively, out of 556 elementary schools in Utah. These stats disappointed Superintendent Smith, and he knew it was time to make some major changes. But he also knew change wasn't going to come easy.
How did it get so bad in the first place?
"Three generations of doing nothing," said Superintendent Smith.
Well, not literally of course, but pretty close. Ogden elementary schools are located in not-so-well-to-do areas of town - in fact, both Dee Elementary and Odyssey Elementary are at 100% poverty - and that greatly affects the quality of education. Since many Ogden students did not enjoy all the advantages shared by more affluent families, they often went to school with low self-esteem or no self-esteem at all. To combat this, teachers frequently "dumbed-down" the rigor of instruction and assignments so that students could feel a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. This continued for years until one day it was revealed that students throughout Ogden were being taught at a full grade level below where they should have been, according to Superintendent Smith. The teachers who taught that way were well-intentioned, but they unknowingly created a culture of sub-par education in many Ogden schools.
It quickly became apparent that to improve education in the Ogden School District, the culture had to be changed - and fast. To aid in that cause, the district enlisted the help of the University of Virginia's Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE).
The PLE is a coalition of University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education. With the shared mission of improving education across the country, these schools created the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program. The program focuses on turning around some of the nation's lowest-performing schools through integrated business and education leadership practices. In the summer of 2011, Superintendent Smith's predecessor Superintendent Zabriskie sent representatives from Dee Elementary School, Odyssey Elementary School, George Washington High School, and Ogden High School to train at the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program.
At the training program, the representatives learned that a successful school turnaround requires "strong leadership, reorganization of instruction, [and] restructuring of how we use data [such as test results]," said Superintendent Smith. When the representatives returned, they incorporated these ideas at their respective schools for the 2011-2012 academic year.
The results were shocking.
Proficiency in language arts, math, and science increased dramatically at each school that participated in the program. At George Washington High School, for example, proficiency in language arts and science improved more than thirty percent, according to the school's website. The other three schools that participated in the program saw similar results all across the board.
A turnaround of that magnitude is almost unreal. To improve proficiency so drastically over any period of time is a great accomplishment, but to do so in the space of one school year is truly a miracle. Dee Elementary school went from being a bottom-dweller to 390th in state rankings. Superintendent Smith expects both Dee Elementary School and Odyssey Elementary School to break the top fifty in coming years.
What's even more unreal is the community reaction to the school's success. Once parents saw their children's results, they responded. For example, Dee Elementary school now has a functional PTA the first time in its history. This support will have untold effect on present and future students.
Because the results were so phenomenal, Superintendent Smith expanded the program to other schools. This past summer, the district sent representatives from five more schools to the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program. This current school year will be those schools' first year in the program, and Superintendent Smith expects similar results.
But for the schools that have already participated in the program and for every school in the district, for that matter the turnaround is not yet complete. For Superintendent Smith, one year of improved proficiency at a handful of schools is not enough. He wants to carry that momentum into this school year and beyond at every school in the district.
"Success breeds success," said Superintendent Smith, and the mission now is to "change the culture at our schools . . . [and help] people learn to think differently about what we do."
Superintendent Smith is especially dedicated to changing the culture at Ogden School District's junior high schools and high schools. In his tenure as Superintendent, every junior high in the district have adopted fully functional honors programs. In addition, Ogden High School now has an International Baccalaureate program starting this school year, with 43 students participating. International Baccalaureate is a two-year curriculum designed to give students a "liberal" education. Completing the International Baccalaureate program gives students 60 hours of college credit.
The Superintendent is proud of these programs, but he still wants more from his high schools. From the time he took office, his goal has always been to graduate each and every student who comes through the district. When high schools pushed back and told him that wasn't possible, Superintendent Smith pushed right back just as hard.
In 2011, Ogden High School reported a seventy-seven percent graduation rate, while Ben Lomond High School had a seventy-eight percent graduation rate. Superintendent Smith wondered what could be done about the other roughly twenty-five percent of students who didn't graduate. Had the schools given up on them? In response to that question, he began what he calls the "Senior Hot List" midway through the 2011-2012 school year.
"In February , I asked each high school to give me a list," he said. "I wanted them to give me the names of every student they didn't think would graduate at the end of the year. I said, "Who can you get across that stage that isn't presently on that trajectory?" He then asked that everyone employed at the high schools - teachers, administrators, counselors, staff assistants, and even janitors - focus extra attention on these students to help them meet their graduation requirements. The goal was, of course, to reach one-hundred percent graduation rate.
Progress was slow at first, but as the weeks passed and the end of the school year drew nearer - and with a little extra push from Superintendent Smith - teachers and students alike stepped up and responded exceptionally well to the "Senior Hot List." Teachers soon began to see the affect their extra attention had on students. Over time, more teachers volunteered to help students on the list.
When graduation day arrived in May, 2012, Ogden High School and Ben Lomond High School each graduated 50 more students than they had in 2011 - a three percent increase for Ben Lomond and a staggering twelve percent increase for Ogden. To put it in perspective, of the twenty-three percent of students who didn't graduate in 2011, more than half of those students graduated in 2012 thanks to the Senior Hot List. The Senior Hot List is back for this school year, and both schools are now participating in the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program.
With already one year of participation in the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program complete, and with overall proficiency and graduation rates on the rise, it's clear that the Superintendent's mission to change the culture in the Ogden School District is off to a good start. But what's the biggest obstacle left to overcome?
Contrary to belief, "it's not money," said Superintendent Smith. "Money is no issue - that's not to say I wouldn't take it - but innovative leaders and time are scarce resources."
In other words, Superintendent Smith needs everybody in the District - from principals and teachers to students and their parents - to step up to the plate in order to achieve a complete change in culture. It will take a commitment to maximize on what little time is available, and it will take a devotion to strong leadership from the top down. It's a daunting task to be sure, but it's not impossible. For example, look no farther than Dee Elementary School.