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Oquirrh Elementary School students
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Oquirrh Hills Elementary School first to be shut down under Utah’s turnaround program

Oquirrh Elementary School students pose with "live united" shirts in a photograph from the school's website, taken on November 3, 2014, the year before the turnaround program began. (Photo: Granite School District)

Oquirrh Hills Elementary School has become the first school to be shut down under Utah’s turnaround program and will officially close its doors at the end of the academic year.

The school, which has had some of the lowest test scores in the state, was given three years to show improvement in its students’ academic achievement. Instead, their test scores went down, and, on Tuesday, Jan. 8th, the Granite District School Board voted to shut it down for good.

“These kids deserve a quality educational opportunity,” Granite School District Spokesman Ben Horsely told KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic when he was invited to discuss it on the air. “We were not providing it.”

Utah’s school turnaround program

Oquirrh Hills Elementary's Dr. Seuss Day

Oquirrh Hills Elementary School students perform as they participate in Dr. Seuss Day on March 1, 2013. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Under Utah’s school turnaround program, which started in 2015, the schools that receive the lowest 3 percent of student achievement scores in SAGE math, language arts, and science test are given grants and expert assistance to help them catch up with the other schools in the district.

But all of that comes with a heavy catch. Every school in the program has three years to show improvement or they’ll face consequences that could range from seeing their teachers replaced to getting shut down outright.

Getting a turnaround school to improve isn’t easy, as Horsely himself admits. Most of the schools in the program are in low socio-economic areas, where students face challenges that middle and upper-class students never have to imagine.

Those challenges affect them before they even walk through the school doors. The average middle-class student, Horsely says, enters into kindergarten with a vocabulary of 2,500 words. The average impoverished student, however, enters with only 600.

“These kids are not dumb,” Horsley says. “They just are starting at a different starting line than your average middle class or high-income student.”

As difficult as the task is, however, Horsely doesn’t believe that it’s impossible. To get out of the program, schools just have to show growth, something the other schools in the program managed to do. Ten schools in the Granite School District were identified as turnaround schools. Eight of those schools showed enough improvement to get out of the program, while one improved enough to get an extension.

Oquirrh Hill Elementary, on the other hand, didn’t just fail to improve. During the three years they were in the program, student achievement actually went down.

On Tuesday, Jan. 8, the Granite School Board voted to close its doors forever.

The future for Oquirrh Hills

Oquirrh Hills Elementary School

Teacher Mary Hamilton helps sixth-grader Karina Palza at Oquirrh Hills Elementary in
the file photo taken Aug. 30, 2010. (Photo: Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

Although the school is shutting its doors, Horsley says that there are no plans for any of the employees to lose their jobs.

The administrator in charge of the school will be reassigned to a different school. Horsley says that she was brought in this year to help turn the school around, and that the scores that led to the school being shut down came from before she joined the team.

The teachers themselves will also be reassigned. They will not be put into the same classrooms as their previous students, but they will not be fired, either.

“I think some people think these teachers should just be put out on the streets and fired,” Horsley says.

He doesn’t believe that’s necessary. “Sometimes teachers get in a rut. Sometimes teachers thrive in certain environments and don’t in other environments. So we have certainly found, in some instances, when teachers are struggling that to put them in a new environment with a different type of instructional leader can make a world of a difference and they can start performing.”

The students themselves will be sent to other schools in the area starting the next schools year.

Horlsey has also promised that class sizes at the schools receiving Oquirrh Hills students will not grow. The district already has plans in place to hire new teachers to make sure that class sizes stay the same.

“We need to give these kids the growth, get them up to speed to give them an opportunity,” Horsley says. He believes that the key to making sure they get those opportunities is making sure that they have quality instruction.

At Oquirrh Hills Elementary Schools, Horsley says, the students weren’t getting it. But he’s hopeful that, at their new schools, that will change.

More to the story

You can hear everything Ben Horsley had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast:

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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