BY LOUISE R. SHAW
Clipper Staff Writer
BOUNTIFUL — Students at Viewmont High reacted in different ways to learning their school had received an “F” in the new grading system designed by the Utah Legislature.
“Our school is freaking awesome,” said one.
“We’re the best,” said another.
Some found fault with the system:
“That’s dumb,” said one. “What is it based on?” challenged another.
Some were worried: “Something is not right. We must not be doing something right.”
Their reactions were echoed by school principals and district leaders, who shared a variety of views on the letter grades announced Tuesday: some defensive, some challenging, some pensive.
Davis High was one of only a handful of high schools in the state to receive an “A.”
While Davis High Principal Dee Burton was excited and proud about the designation, he was quick to express concern for neighboring high schools and what the lower grades will mean to their students, their teachers and their communites.
“The grades that are given don’t begin to exemplify the work that was put in,” he said. “Many times a school receives a grade because of circumstances that are way beyond their control.”
Three students, of 1,750 at Viewmont, made the difference in the grade the Bountiful school received, said Dan Linford, Viewmont’s principal.
Schools that test fewer than 95 percent of students get an automatic “F” under the new system. At Viewmont, 98 percent of the school’s general population took the tests, but of those classified as “nonproficient” because of prior year’s test scores, only 93.6 percent participated.
“I wouldn’t have received an “F” if I’d asked kids to come in and log in and mark all Cs on that test,” said Linford.
Viewmont’s scores would have earned it a “B” without the automatic “F” due to test participation.
“I welcome accountability and I welcome transparency,” said Linford. “I’m proud of our test scores and I’m proud of our achievements but applying a letter grade to a school is just a lazy way to do that.”
Burton and Linford both say there is more to a school than its test scores. In addition to basic academics, there are Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, arts, athletics and additional college preparation resources.
Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is listed as the sponsor of the SB 271, which set up the system. He said it was passed to encourage transparency and spur improvement.
“We’re all looking at what may come of this. We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said.
Utah lawmakers looked at a similar program in Florida and other states. When schools in Florida had low letter grades, community members “jumped in and helped,” said Adams.
“They just worked hard at it,” he said. “In my mind, every school in Utah has the ability to get an ‘A.’”
Stuart agrees that there are some glitches in the new law, which was developed over several years with the backing of Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. The 95 percent requirement is one.
“That may be looked at during the next session,” he said.
In the case of Florida schools, Linford said those with low grades received money to fund reforms.
“I assume most of the time we can get a little bit better, but I also assume that most of the time teachers are working as hard as they can and short of giving them more resources, I don’t know what we’re going to do with a letter grade anyway,” he said.
Diane Cahoon, principal at Whitesides Elementary in Layton said her teachers were devastaed by the “D” grade the school received.
“Our teachers are very proactive in what they’re doing in making things better,” said Cahoon. “We’re not happy with our grade because we know that we’re better than that.”
Parents can help, she said, by helping children learn their letters and numbers either at home or in pre-schools before even beginning kindergarten, and by encouraging attendance.
Last year, 5,100 absenses were recorded for the school’s 500 students, she said, more than 10 per student.
“If they’re not here, we can’t teach them,” she said.
Whitesides is a Title I school and Cahoon estimated 50 percent of the studentbody receives free or reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty level in families.
“Any school grade that you can predict based on demographics is a complete failure in accountability policy,” said Logan Toone, director of assessment, research and evalutation for Davis School District. “We don’t have any problem being held accountable as long as we’re being held accountable with a metric that makes sense.”
Toone said the best indicator of a quality school is the interaction between a student and a teacher.
“You can’t reflect that with one letter on a website,” he said. “It just can’t be done.”
In a letter to a concerned parent, Cahoon outlined seven major areas where teachers are working to improve educational results.
“We will leave nothing to chance at Whitesides,” she wrote. “We want all our students to succeed.”
Adams complimented Utah teachers, calling them diligent and concerned.
“I believe our future is bright because of our teachers,” he said. “They teach not necessarily for compensation but for the joy of seeing people learn, of changing lives. As we work together I think we will have a really positive effect on not only our kids but the entire nation.”