A soon-to-be closed elementary in Kearns is the first casualty of Utah’s school turnaround program

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oquirrh Hills Elementary School in Kearns, is being forced to close down after failing to improve its test scores. Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

Kearns • Megan Madsen became principal of Oquirrh Hills Elementary School this year, with an expectation — or hope — that a change in administration would trickle down through the school’s machinery and lift students' test scores.

Oquirrh Hills is among the worst-performing schools in the state and was facing the threat of forced closure as deadlines for Utah’s school-turnaround program loomed.

“It’s a big task,” Madsen said of taking on the job of principal. “We want to make sure we’re providing [students] the education they deserve.”

This week, word arrived that any improvement would be too little too late. The 61-year-old school had failed to make adequate improvement under the turnaround law, and Granite School District administrators were recommending that Oquirrh Hills Elementary be closed at the end of the current academic year.

“Obviously, the news was hard for teachers to hear,” Madsen said. “No one wants to hear that a place that they love, or something that they devote a lot of time and work into, is going to be shutting down.”

The Granite School Board will formally vote in January whether to shut down Oquirrh Hills Elementary, but all signs point to the decision being effectively made.

In Madsen’s office Friday, a map of the school’s boundaries showed how students would be distributed among neighboring campuses. On Thursday, district representatives held a community meeting to inform residents of the impending closure.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said most of the district’s other turnaround schools have successfully exited the program after making improvements. And the two factors at the heart of turnaround — school grading and standardized testing — have gone through multiple adjustments that muddied the performance targets for schools like Oquirrh Hills.

“People are under the impression that we were watching a fire burn,” Horsley said. “That’s not the case. It wasn’t clear-cut that they were going to fail.”

(Courtesy Granite School District) A map of Granite School District boundaries shows the proposed distribution of students at Oquirrh Hills Elementary School to neighboring campuses if Oquirrh Hills is shut down at the end of the current academic year.

Oquirrh Hills was among the first cohort of 26 schools designated as turnaround, a status applied to the 3 percent of Utah campuses with the lowest school grades. Once designated as turnaround, schools have three years to either improve their test scores and school grades, or face severe consequences such as forced closure, transition to a charter school, redrawn boundaries and faculty purges.

The program was the brainchild of outgoing Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who in 2015 sponsored legislation spending $7 million each year to hire private education consultants to work with struggling schools. But the program quickly ran into financial and structural trouble as widespread improvement among turnaround schools necessitated bonuses for the consultants out of a shallow funding pool.

Niederhauser was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment.

The law was amended in 2017 to loosen some requirements — in particular, a school must now be in the bottom 3 percent for two consecutive years to be designated as turnaround — and subsequent changes to school grading eliminated a distribution model that guaranteed some Utah schools would be labeled as failing every year.

That distribution meant that an individual school’s improvement could be effectively wiped out by performance gains statewide.

“People don’t understand the fundamentals behind how the grades were originally calculated," Horsley said.

In addition to Oquirrh Hills Elementary, Midvale Elementary in Canyons School District and Entheos Academy, a Magna charter school, also failed to improve after being included in the initial cohort of turnaround schools. A fourth school, Pioneer Charter High, voluntarily closed ahead of the turnaround deadline.

The Canyons and Entheos boards have not yet determined how to proceed, and Canyons School District is seeking an extension from the Utah Board of Education for Midvale Elementary.

“We have asked for more time to turn that school around," said Jeff Haney, Canyons spokesman.

He declined to speculate on what action the Canyons School Board may take if its extension request is denied.

“We will certainly cross that bridge when we get there,” Haney said.

Horsley said the staff at Oquirrh Hills will be reassigned to other schools and students will be absorbed into neighboring campuses. There is capacity at those schools, Horsley said, some of which had also participated in the turnaround program.

He said there’s reason to be optimistic that student performance will improve after closing Oquirrh Hills, because the other schools in the district are seeing better results with a similar population of students.

“These schools have established cultures of success,” Horsley said. “Kids are succeeding in those environments despite having the same at-risk features.”

Oquirrh Hills is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives supplemental federal funding due to a large population of low-income families. Madsen said that roughly 90 percent of her students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

She said her staff would continue working to help students and that “checking out” isn’t an option.

“Ultimately, we go on, just as we would any other day,” Madsen said. “I trust our district. And I believe they’ll do what is best for kids.”

Granite School District will retain ownership of the school property, Horsley said. And while it will no longer be Oquirrh Hills Elementary — pending a vote of the district board — he said it could potentially be used to temporarily house students as other schools are remodeled or constructed.

“There is some lemonade in these lemons,” he said.