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Park City School Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley’s Bold Initiative

School Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley took over the reigns of the Park City School District in 2013. In that time, she has worked hard to continue Park City’s tradition of being one of the best school districts in the state and is working towards Park City being recognized for the offering the best schools in the country. She appears focused on using data to guide the course of the school district. Yet, she is about to embark on what will be her most challenging endeavor yet during her Park City tenure.

Over the course of the next three years, the foundation of the educational system will change in Park City. All day Kindergarten will be offered to all families in Park City. This causes more children to be in our elementary schools, thus pushing them to their capacities. Therefore, 5th grade will be taken out of each elementary school. A new school will be built at Ecker Hill where 5th and 6th graders will be educated. 7th and 8th grade will now be at Ecker Hill, as well. Because of the All Day Kindergarten, the tag on effects include moving 9th grade into the high school. The high school isn’t big enough to accommodate these students, so it will be expanded. The expansion of the high school has to happen somewhere, which means that Dosier Field may be torn down and relocated. Since that is going to happen, the reasoning goes that they might as well look at all athletic facilities at the Kearns Campus and see what should be upgraded. This $66 million plan will change the entire face of Park City Schools.

Just what started the cascade of changes? Dr Conley’s contention that the district absolutely must have all day kindergarten to meet the needs of our Hispanic population. It seems that in 2014, SAGE standardized test results indicated that only 9% of Hispanic 11th graders were proficient in english. Dr Conley’s contention is that the extra 3-plus hours per day of Kindergarten will reduce the achievement gap and put Hispanic students on par with other students by third grade.

It is true that the School District had a Master Planning Committee that recommended changes to the school board. Yet, these changes were recommended based on academic needs, primarily the direction that we will have all day kindergarten. It is also true that the School Board was the one to ultimately approve all day kindergarten, yet they relied on the direction from Dr. Conley to make that decision.

So as Steven King wrote, Dr. Conley, “It’s your cat now.”

And frankly, it’s a grand strategy if she can pull it off. One of the greatest challenges of any sizable school district is to successfully educate the economically disadvantaged. The difficulty in judging that success is the variability in the data. For instance, in this year’s SAGE results, between 20% and 30% of Hispanic 11th graders were proficient in english. That’s at least a 100% improvement this year, before any buildings are built, or grades realigned. That is likely either due to our teachers finding a way and/or just a different group of kids. Yet, we have to have some means of judging whether this initiative was successful.

I believe one statistical way of doing so, is looking at the first third grade class of Hispanic kids that will attend all day kindergarten. So, if all day kindergarten begins next year, the 2019-2020 school year will begin to tell us (through a test like SAGE) if this plan is working. We should see that HISPANIC kids scores are on par with the rest of the school. For instance if we look at our best school (per SAGE results), Jeremy Ranch Elementary, 20-30% of Hispanic 3rd graders are proficient, while their caucasian counterparts are 67% proficient. If that 67% number stays consistent, our 2019-2020 class of Hispanic 3rd graders should be scoring in the 60% range. Let’s take our least performing elementary school (per SAGE), McPolin. 11-19% of Hispanic 3rd graders are proficient while 50-59% of caucasian kids are. Again, by 2019-2020, all kids should be in the at least the 50% range (and why not the 60% range).

We should also look for those results to stay consistent as our kids progress through school. This isn’t just about 3rd grade, it’s about a quality education for all kids through graduation.

Dr Conley has made a big leap with her plan and the school board has jumped in with her. Given that the average tenure for a school superintendent is 4 years, it is unlikely that Dr Conley will be here in 2019 to see if her plan worked or through the next decade to ensure that the success continues. If she does unfortunately follow trends, and pursues other alternatives, we’ll likely need to look to our current school board members to see this through and judge the success. Many of them will likely be in our community, and a few probably still on the school board. So at least there will be some people to heap praise on or hold accountable when we start to see the results.

As they say, “Fortune Favors the Bold.” When taken as a whole this was a very bold idea, with lots riding on it. Can our school district bring test results of Hispanic kids on par with others? If yes, that may be the biggest win in the history of Park City Schools. If not, $66 million could have been used in our community in much better ways.

Let’s hope that Dr Conley and the School Board were just the right amount of bold in pursuing this course.




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