‘You guys failed them’: Parents, community members berate school board for closing a Utah elementary school after years of low test scores

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paula Larsen, representing the Kearns community council speaks during Granite School District Board of Education public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, at the Granite Education Center in Salt Lake City to consider the closure of Oquirrh Hills Elementary (5241 S. 4280 West).

Cesar Reyes and Carmen Ramirez live across the street from where their two kids go to elementary school in Kearns.

As Ramirez gets ready for her late shift as a nurse, she watches from the family’s front window as her son and daughter skip along the sidewalk, backpacks bouncing, to the school’s front doors in the morning. And Reyes, a mechanic who works early, is there in the living room by the time they get home in the afternoon.

Next year, though, their kids, 10-year-old Gabriela and 7-year-old Julio, won’t be able to go to Oquirrh Hills Elementary. Granite School District will close the school — among the worst-performing in the state — at the end of May. And the more than 250 students there will be spread among three elementary schools in the surrounding neighborhoods.

For Reyes and Ramirez, that means their kids will have to walk more than a mile to their new classrooms at David Gourley Elementary School.

“It’s easy to blame the kids instead of the teachers,” Ramirez said.

“It’s frustrating,” Reyes added. “The district is not doing anything to help.”

The parents attended a Granite School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday night with the hope of being able to stop the school from being shuttered. They collected and brought hundreds of signatures from their neighbors. They sat in the front row, wiping tears from their eyes while Gabriela and Julio played games on their phones. And they were surrounded by about 40 others with similar concerns.

But the board — facing requirements under Utah’s school-turnaround law — voted to close the 61-year-old school, which failed to make adequate improvements in testing since 2015. In fact, it dipped 6 percent since then in combined math, science and language arts scores. It is the first school to be shut down under the program.

“We apologize for things that we could have done better but that maybe weren’t done,” said board member Terry Bawden, who called for the vote, which passed with two members opposed. “But unfortunately our hands were tied by law.”

It was a tense and bitter two-hour meeting where members of the community berated the board for not letting them know about the issues sooner, for blaming the problems on the cultural makeup of the school — which is largely minority students — and the economic status — with roughly 90 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — and for not fighting to keep it open with an extension.

“It was your responsibility to make sure this school turned around, and you didn’t do it,” said Kearns Metro Township Mayor Kelly Bush. “Now my community is paying the price.”

Oquirrh Hills was among the first group of 26 schools designated by the state as turnaround in 2015, which is applied to the 3 percent of Utah campuses with the lowest school grades (that was later updated to the lowest 3 percent for two consecutive years). Once a school is designated as turnaround, it has three years to either improve test scores or be forced to close, transition to a charter, redraw boundaries or get new staff.

Because Oquirrh Hills’ test scores dropped even lower during that time period, it did not qualify for an extension. Granite School District had nine other schools in the program, which have all improved their scores with the help of private education consultants.

“They knew since 2015, and they didn’t do anything,” Ramirez said.

Now, the 43-year-old mother is worried her kids will be shipped off to another school, treated as inferior to their peers because they came from Oquirrh Hills, and separated from their friends.

One board member tried to postpone the vote. But the state gave the district 90 days to act, and it already passed that deadline by four days, said Superintendent Martin Bates. He sat in front of a sign for the district that said, “From here, anything’s possible,” and promised to communicate better with parents in the future.

If the district failed to act Tuesday, though, he stressed, the Utah State Board of Education could withhold funding for all of its schools.

Megan Madsen, who became principal at Oquirrh Hills this year, said the change is “going to be hard for families.”

“But [the district] just wants what’s best for the kids.”

Oquirrh Hills is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives supplemental federal funding due to its proportion of low-income families. Madsen said the school sees a lot of fluctuation with its population, too, and has lost about 25 students since October with people moving.

Bordering schools were also deemed turnaround, but improved enough to exit the program. All three of the elementary schools that students from Oquirrh Hills will transfer to have markedly better test scores. Arcadia Elementary, for instance, had 43 percent of its students scoring proficient in math last year. Oquirrh Hills had 22 percent (down from 25 percent the year before)

“The schools surrounding Oquirrh Hills are higher performing” and “not challenged by low enrollment,” said Rick Anthony, the district’s assistant superintendent for educator support and development services, who reported to the board. Teachers and other staff will also be placed in surrounding schools, he noted.

And the building, which the district will retain ownership of, could potentially be used to house students while other schools are remodeled or constructed. It will still be used as a community center, too.

But Paula Larsen, chair of the Kearns community council, believes the damage is already done. Since Oquirrh Hills was slated for closure, she’s heard people labeling the students as dumb and “unable to achieve” and the neighborhood as riddled with gangs and drugs.

“How dare you call these children nonachievers? They are not. They are smart children,” she said to the board of education. “They did not fail. You guys failed them. You failed them and now you want to walk away and send them to other schools.”

Larsen added: “You don’t close a school. It’s a building. You change teachers. You change administrators. Teaching methods, programs, whatever it takes — regardless of how many times you have to do it.”

State Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, who is a former paraeducator, also spoke at the meeting, saying she plans to change the turnaround law because “we need to bring every school up.”

Sherry and Tony Talbert, longtime Kearns residents, talked about how their kids and their grandkids attended Oquirrh Hills.

“These kids need you more than ever,” Tony Talbert said, tearing up. “They’re not a problem.”

The Talberts walked out of the meeting ahead of Reyes and Ramirez, who shook their heads and held their kids’ hands. Gabriela and Julio danced toward the doors unsure about what fifth and third grade would mean for them next year.