Utah's letter grades for schools will engage communities, proponents say
Ogden • A day after the unveiling of Utah's school grading system, more parents are taking notice of their schools, business leaders are energized to help and lawmakers are optimistic about the future, proponents say.
Even at schools that received a failing grade, at least people are getting engaged for the first time, said lawmakers, educators and school district leaders at a news conference Wednesday.
"In the last two days I've heard from several parents in my neighborhood who haven't paid attention [to] the data in the past," Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said, referring to Ben Lomond High's "F" grade. "They haven't been able to decipher the information before. They understand letter grades."
Proponents of school grades said that is exactly the purpose: Giving parents an easy way to judge how their school is doing.
As evidence, officials showcased Polk Elementary, a traditional neighborhood school in Ogden, and Ogden Preparatory Academy, a charter school, which both received a B grade. Both schools serve at-risk students; each draws more than 60 percent of its students from low-income homes, and each has 40 percent to 50 percent minority students.
"[School grades] are not to demonize schools and place a scarlet letter," Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said. "It's a call to arms."
He also responded to accusations by the state's education associations that the grades are a first step toward privatization of public schools.
"I've heard the narrative that this is an anti-education effort," Hughes said. "This was motivated to herald the successes that are happening in our schools, focus on the schools that have challenges, focus our resources on best practices."
Polk Principal Maridee Harrison said her teachers rely heavily on each student's academic data, meet each week to discuss students and take appropriate measures to help them.
Ogden Superintendent Brad Smith said he pushed for a districtwide effort to focus on student data, which has come under criticism.
"All systems are perfectly designed to achieve exactly the results they get, and in the Ogden School District for the last two years we have been engaged in a systematic effort to fundamentally alter the nature of education," Smith said. "It has not been without controversy."
Members from the business community said the school grades will engage business leaders. Both Alan Hall of Prosperity 2020 and Rich Nelson of the Utah Technology Council said businesses have been pushing for changes in education.
Nelson said the No. 1 issue is a "talent shortage," with thousands of open positions.
"Nine hundred schools in the state were not producing enough talent," Nelson said. "Transparency is a great thing. ... We hope it will engage the community."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said Florida saw dramatic academic increases after school grading was enacted, and he predicted the same for Utah.
When asked about Florida's policies that give failing schools extra funds, Stephenson said the same could happen in Utah.
"[School grades] might be the impetus for this," he said.
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