Two of the worst-performing schools in Utah will get more time to improve after a vote by the state Board of Education

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at Midvale Elementary make games in this picture taken in 2016.

Two of the worst-performing public schools in the state will have another two years to try to improve their students’ test scores — before they could be forced to close — under reprieves granted by the Utah Board of Education on Friday.

The extensions came after more than three hours of tense debate where members questioned whether to keep the schools open, whether the administrators could prove they were making changes for the better and whether the kids enrolled there were being hurt by staying in the failing classrooms. Ultimately more lenient than expected, it was the first board action to determine the fate of a campus since Utah’s school-turnaround program started three years ago.

“We have a minimum expectation that you are going to make education happen,” said Board Chairman Mark Huntsman after the decisions. “I hope you understand the magnitude of the responsibility you have.”

The two schools, Midvale Elementary and a charter in Magna called Entheos Academy, were among the first cohort of 26 schools designated as turnaround, which applied to the 3 percent of Utah campuses with the lowest school grades. Once designated in that status, schools have three years to either improve their standardized test scores and grades or face consequences, such as being required to shut down, redraw boundaries or purge faculty.

Neither Midvale nor Entheos made significant gains in that time.

Meanwhile, 20 others in the cohort did, and they have successfully exited the program. Two others voluntarily closed their doors ahead of the deadline, including a controversial call by Granite District’s school board to shutter Oquirrh Hills Elementary in Kearns.

Canyons School District sought an extension for Midvale Elementary, asking for more time to turn it around. The school had just gotten a new principal when it was designated as failing, but now “we’re encouraged by the results that we’re seeing,” said Mont Millerberg, a member of the district’s local school board who also attended the school as a child in the 1950s.

Testifying before the state board of education Friday, he said there have been significant investments in the school. The district spent $16 million to build a new facility in Midvale, and it has hired more staff there.

Chip Watts, the principal, added the school faces unique challenges, in part, because of the socioeconomic status of its students, with the majority living below the poverty line and a third of the kids being chronically absent for related reasons. When he took over as principal three years ago, the school received an F grade — down from a D — and he tried every suggestion for improvement that came his way. It was the wrong approach, he said.

“We were trying to do everything, and we weren’t doing anything very well,” Watts added. “We watched kids move backward in reading and math.”

Since February of last year, the school has worked on a refined plan that has included adding more social and emotional staffers, such as a psychologist and a social worker, offering more training to teachers, incorporating dual language immersion programs into the classroom and having instructors teach on their strengths (either English and history or science and math).

Now, most of the students in first and second grade are reading at benchmark levels, Watts said; and math scores have jumped multiple points for all grades.

“This year, we’re seeing students move forward at rates that have never, to [the best of] my knowledge, been achieved at Midvale Elementary.”

It’s unclear if those midyear evaluations will translate to improvements on the end-of-year standardized tests, but the state education board voted to give the school the opportunity to try.

Midvale Elementary will be required to conduct a new assessment to see if it is making progress, update its improvement plan with the results and demonstrate by the end of the 2019-20 school year that its test scores have gotten better and that it is no longer in the bottom 3 percent. If it doesn’t, the board will consider more rigorous action. The school will receive $50,000 to start the recommendations.

“I feel like they’re moving in a good direction,” said member Jennie Earl, who represents northern Utah.

“It sounds like you’ve got some momentum,” added Scott Hansen, whose constituents are in Utah County.

The law for the turnaround program was amended in 2017 to make it slightly less stringent. Now, a school much be in the bottom 3 percent for two consecutive years to be designated as failing. But additional changes to the two results that feed the program — school grades and standardized tests — have also been adjusted recently, including a new distribution model for school grades that doesn’t spit out a single score and a new provider for the tests that makes it difficult to compare data year to year.

Currently, state Sen. Karen Mayne is drafting a bill to reform the turnaround law, including putting limitations on who can close a school and when that can happen in the process.

Entheos Academy in Magna, the second school the state board granted a reprieve to Friday, did not technically improve enough over the past three years to be considered for an extension (unlike the small gains made at Midvale Elementary). Still, the board voted to also give it more time, albeit with more stringent requirements.

If Entheos doesn’t improve enough in two years to be up to standard, the school will be automatically closed. The board is also requiring a check-up in one year.

“This school is very much wanted by the community,” said Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the Utah State Charter School Board, which also oversees the academy.

Entheos has campuses in both Magna and Kearns, but only the Magna one was designated as turnaround. Members of the Utah Board of Education questioned why one was failing and the other succeeding, particularly since parents choose to enroll their kids in a charter school.

“It’s just been a little bit of a slower process,” said Eric Robins, the executive director for both campuses. “We are constantly looking. And we’re taking suggestions.”

He and his staff reported that the Magna campus has moved faculty around and put in place a new math curriculum. It’s also created peer groups for students to build connections and friendships (parents had reported a bullying problem there).

Over the past year, most of its marks have moved from “partial” and “minimal” to “substantial” and “sufficient.” And it was accredited with zero “needs improvement” scores. The board asked for more detailed information but the academy could not immediately provide that.

“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and hope that you can turn Entheos around,” said member Linda Hansen, who represents West Valley City. The board voted with one opposed to give the academy more time to improve under a probationary status.