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Office Hours With Ember Conley (3/18/2016)

This morning, Park City School District Superintendent Dr Ember Conley hosted her second “Office Hours” at Hugo Coffee. Office Hours provides an opportunity for citizens to sit down with Dr Conley (and other concerned community members) and discuss current issues. While last week’s meeting was good, this week’s meeting showed it is starting to find it’s groove.

While I wasn’t able to attend the full hour, the first 40 minutes were very interesting. Here is an overview:

  • A citizen asked about when grade realignment was going to occur. Dr Conley said the district could probably do it sooner with trailers but it was more likely 2018-2019 before it could be implemented through construction at buildings.
  • A citizen asked what do we do with 6th grade? Dr Conley answered that she is a proponent of 5th/6th school but is flexible. Dr Conley said she grew up with a K-6 school, so that probably also influences her viewpoint. A citizen said that she has a fifth grade student and that student is ready to move on out of their current school.
  • A citizen asked what a 5th/6th school should look like. Dr Conley responded that it needs to look like elementary type school. It needs to be comfortable and nurturing. A citizen asked what that meant. Dr Conley said that it typically wouldn’t contain a block schedule (i.e. elementary students wouldn’t have say 4 classes on one day and 4 others on a different day), there would be lots of teacher teaming, lots of collaboration, and kids wouldn’t have far to walk between classes (if the moved at all). The citizen then followed up with a question about what a 7th/8th grade school would look like. Dr Conley said Ecker Hill is a perfect example of what a 7th/8th should look like. A new 7th/8th school would also likely have block classes (TMJH does have a block schedule now… and that would likely also be the case if the 7th/8th moved to a building like Ecker Hill) . She noted that Dual Immersion and block classes don’t work so well together.
  • A Citizen asked what data show on K-4, 5th/6th, 7th/8th, 9-12 transitions (i.e. students having to change schools as they get older)? Dr Conley replied that transitions are always tough but that there are ways to bridge those changes by doing thing like having schools in close proximity to each other (like the Master Planning Committee recommended). The citizen asked the question again and emphasized “WHAT DO THE STUDIES SAY.” Dr Conley said that one of the most important factors in success regarding transitions is the community’s feelings. She said positive outcomes were linked to what the community felt made sense for them. A different Citizen said she had 8th grader and the transitions between schools caused her student some stress. Also her kids don’t like block schedule and having to walk to high school for some classes, but that having to go to the high school could make the students more familiar with the high school building. Dr Conley says that a majority of students drop out between 6th and 8th grade. Proper transitions can help prevent that. Park City has a low dropout rate but we should do everything we can. Dr Conley says she is not trying to push anything though.
  • The topic of other factors influencing our kids came up and Dr. Conley said that a survey called SHARPS is showing higher drug use problems in younger grades in Park City (and nationwide). It is also showing growing mental illness, including suicide. The district is working with the county and city on this.
  • Citizen says that with all the activities her kids sometimes don’t go to bed until midnight. So, the citizen wanted to know what is happening with later start times. Dr Conley says they are looking at that thanks to the citizens who have brought up the issue… but it really comes down to money for buses. It is also a ripple effect. She says we don’t have enough bus drivers.
    • She says it is tough when local fast food restaurants pay $15 per hour, to get a bus driver at $12… who has to be to work at 5AM.
    • Another citizen commented that some districts pay bus drivers year round.
    • Another citizen asks if they have looked at outsourcing bus drivers.
      • Dr Conley says she is not sure but they have looked at things like that for maintenance.
  • A Citizen asked what times are being considered for changing start times? Dr Conley replied that:
    • They were looking at anything after 8:30 for students 13 years old and older.
    • However, that reduces hours for bus drivers, which can make it hard to find drivers.
    • There is also the concern that younger students would be at the bus stops in the dark, if older students had later start times (due to bus schedule requirements)
  • A citizen asked how later start times may impact sports. Dr Conley said that it greatly impacts after school sports and activities. She said, that if sports started at 4PM, it condenses the time for fields and makes it much harder to have space for everyone.
  • A Citizen asked whether school start times will be changed for sure. Dr Conley said that it was still under discussion. Molly Miller, the school district’s communications person said that there will be a meeting next week, hosted by concerned citizens, regarding the topic.
  • A citizen asks if there are objections to later start times from working parents?
    • Dr Conley said there are pluses and minuses from working parents. She said some studies show that kids would be at home less by themselves which can reduce risky behavior and that later start times could mean kids being at home less by themselves.
  • A citizens said she has never been in district with half days. She asked if our district could due full days but have each day be a little shorter. Dr Conley said she has experience as principal and found that many teachers like having 90 minute classes, versus 60 minutes classes as proposed by the citizen. She said that two of hardest things are scheduling of classes and creating the school calendar.
  • A citizen asked what the plan was for forging a path forward after the WhatCounts sessions (one of the pieces of community input to better understand issues performed after the bond failure by the district)? Dr Conley said they wanted to narrow down the values expressed, and delve into the details. She said we heard a lot about community engagement and that people like our programs like AP classes. So, it is really having more conversations with people.

The meeting was scheduled for an additional 20 minutes. I’m sure other topics of interest were discussed after I left.

I would encourage you, if you have questions or concerns about schools, to attend next Friday’s “Office Hours” meeting at 8:30AM at Hugo Coffee. Even more, I would encourage both Summit County and Park City to figure out how to do something similar. It’s one thing to think you’ve answered most citizens’ questions through media interviews or email. It’s another to sit down face to face, answer questions, and then be pressed for more information.

This is definitely one area where the school board is pushing the envelope and succeeding.

Update: Thanks to the citizen who attended this meeting and clarified that TMJH currently has block classes but Ecker Hill does not! That has been noted in the article.


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