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Turning a School ARound

Ohanian: This is a good news/bad news thing. And maybe most of it is good. Hard to say because the cheerleading reporter doesn't offer details.

It is great that students have flex classes--art, music, and so on--early in the day. Get them wanting to come to school. But
a troubling little detail gets passed over. Some of these flex classes are for "extra academic help." Does this mean those students don't get art, music, and so on? Are they off doing stacks of skill drill sheets while other kids play the guitar? And what puts a kid in Saturday class? Could it be guitar lessons?

Granite Park Middle School is clean, quiet and orderly, but classrooms buzz with activity even on Saturdays.

Kids, however, aren't showing up on their own time to serve detention, or to goof off with pals, principal Robert McDaniel says.

They're coming because they need basic math skills and reading help. Because the school expects them to succeed. Because they want to be there.

Not bad for a school McDaniel says some used to label "Ghetto Park."

"You're not going to find a school more energized, more enthused, or where kids love school more than at Granite Park," McDaniel recently told the Granite Board of Education.

The 580-student, seventh- and eighth-grade school, 3031 S. 200 East, for the past few years has impressed Utah middle-level school experts.

"He has done an amazing job there," Lori Gardner, principal of Hunter Junior High and president of the Utah Middle Level Association, said of McDaniel. "Incredible things are happening one teacher at a time, one building principal at a time . . . in the state of Utah."

Middle-level education drew public focus in the late 1990s. Utah State University started offering a middle-level teaching endorsement. The state set up a middle-level task force. And lawmakers gave millions of dollars to help schools ease the transition from elementary school, reduce class size and set up alternative middle schools where students could get academic help and work their way back to regular classrooms.

The movement fell off the public radar as other projects, such as making sure all students could read by third grade, came on the scene.

But middle schools kept plugging at reforms, experts say, citing bright spots in Utah County districts and others.

All 16 Granite junior highs are implementing some reforms, said Christine Huley, district associate director of professional learning.

And Jordan District is in the midst of a reform pilot project, which started three years ago at South Hills and is expected to be duplicated elsewhere.

Granite Park's efforts, however, are unique for big school districts with crowded secondary schools. They're aided by grants and a new configuration.

The school, where more than a third of students speak English as a second language and three-fourths are low-income, no longer includes freshmen. The school board sent them to Granite High, boosting declining enrollments there and eliminating the high-school credits issue that can make middle school reform a challenge. Granite Park teachers team to integrate English, math, science and history lessons, and shepherd the group of students between them as "small learning communities." They receive time to plan.

The school has five periods a day. While two offer choices outside the core, the schedule actually has students spending more time on the core than more traditional schedules, McDaniel reports.

Expectations also have risen. D and F grades are unacceptable. Students who cannot demonstrate competency in a subject a big issue for state policy makers receive "in progress" grades until they achieve mastery.

Students get extra help in Saturday school and after-school labs; some teachers have started offering lab help at lunch on their own.

But the school isn't "drill and kill." Teachers make it fun, too a place where kids like to come and want to learn.

"Flex" classes, held first thing in the morning, draw students in with arts, music or extra academic help. In all, 32 are offered and change as student needs or desires do.

Hundreds of students have also signed up for after-school intramurals from basketball to bowling.

The efforts and programs appear to be paying off.

The school used to have some of the district's lowest test scores, McDaniel said.

No more. This year, it was one of four Granite junior highs to make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind, and it posts the highest two-year gains in the district on the state core curriculum tests.

More than 40 percent of the students have a B average or better, and just 480 incomplete grades (fewer than one per student) remained in December.

The school used to have a 30 percent to 40 percent staff turnover; "now, teachers want to stay."

McDaniel is seeing other payoffs. Vandalism is not the problem it used to be. Kids keep the school clean under the "adopt-a-hallway" program. Students once packed the office with discipline referrals; now, McDaniel says he sees maybe a handful.

School board members have likened Granite Park's success to that of the University of Utah's football team, which crashed the Bowl Championship Series this year and won the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

"The excitement is with the kids, and now, it's carrying into the high school," board president Patricia Sandstrom told McDaniel. "They're going in prepared . . . I can't thank you enough."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com

— Jennifer Toomer-Cook
Deseret Morning News


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