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Orem feasibility study: Effects of a new school district on Orem students

By Genelle Pugmire - | Sep 22, 2022

Daily Herald file photo

Wei Xin Le teaches a first grade Chinese immersion class at Cascade Elementary in Orem on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three stories in a series examining the feasibility and plausibility of Orem splitting away from the Alpine School District. The issue, Proposition 2, will be on the ballot for Orem voters this November. The series will look at the three listed targets from the feasibility study — what is in the best interest of the students, teacher’s salaries and benefits, and financial feasibility for a new district.

The feasibility study notes that, in addition to financial viability, it also reviewed and analyzed eight key areas: school district growth, unresolved seismic safety issues, student test scores, Title I concerns, teacher pay and benefits, class sizes, student enrollment and local representation.

On April 4, Orem City hired Discovery Education Consultants to perform the feasibility study. Residents were concerned because DEC had only registered with the state as a new business in February and Orem’s study was its first.

“We care about and want the very best for our students, teachers and taxpayers,” said Mayor David Young. “That is why we are conducting the most comprehensive school feasibility study to date to determine what is in the best interest of Orem.”

The feasibility study– conducted by Paul McCarty, a 40-year veteran in a variety of education areas and Michael Wankier a CPA with corporate background — is the main source of information being used and represented by various groups who want to form new district. This includes the Save Orem Schools page based on Facebook and several Public Issues Committees, namely Orem’s Future and Orem Parents for Better Education.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Nicolle Scott speaks as part of a group that supports forming an Orem School District during a meeting at the Daily Herald office on Sept. 14, 2022. Scott is a 20-year veteran of school teaching in Wasatch County and resident of Orem.

Groups who feel it is better to stay with the Alpine District are led by the PIC StrongerTogether, which also has a large Facebook following.

Alpine School District information is provided by the district and ASD Board members Sara Hacken and Ada Wilson, both of whom represent Orem.

When it comes to students, the feasibility study notes that Alpine School District K-12 schools in Orem have experienced significant declines in student achievement. McCarty said it is important to note there appeared to be an alteration and distortion of school testing and reporting provided by the ASD for the Comprehensive Study compared with the same student test scores reported by ASD to the Utah State Board of Education.

McCarty also called out the issue during the feasibility presentation to the Orem City Council. Wankier later said an apology should be made to the ASD.

McCarty and Wankier did not note that a change had been made to reporting school testing which would change the numbers. According to Hacken and Wilson, “The state of Utah changed the state test from SAGE to RISE in 2017. The new test was very different in both content and methodology. Schools were held harmless for the first year, at least, of the test, so teachers could have time to teach the new state standards that were on the test.”

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Keith Wilson speaks as part of a group that supports staying in ASD during a meeting at the Daily Herald office on Sept. 7, 2022. Wilson is a librarian and husband to ASD Board of Education member Ada Wilson.

The board members wrote in a report, “Then in 2020-2022, COVID hit and students were out of school with sickness and were being quarantined during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. Absences skyrocketed and test scores reflected the fact that many students were not in class and were not receiving the instruction they needed. Secondary teachers pivoted to Canvas as a way to provide information to students, and that helped many students who had to learn at home.”

McCarty indicated in the study that Orem school class sizes, which are 10-30% larger than those in the Provo City School District, may increase by 23% during the 2022-2023 school.

According to ASD records there are 13 functioning elementary schools in Orem, three junior highs and three high schools. The most recent population data is for the 2020-2021 school year as data for 2021-2022 will not be finalized with the district until Oct. 1. The projections indicate there will be a decrease in the number of students in Orem schools.

The study suggests that Title I students in Orem schools may not have the proportional access to district-funded Specialty Programs compared with schools in higher socioeconomic communities.

Keith Wilson, board member Ada Wilson’s spouse and a supporter for staying in ASD, noted in a presentation to the Daily Herald that 85% of Orem elementary schools offer two or more specialty classes. For whatever reason, the study miscounted five Orem schools and left out Orem Elementary which has an ALL (gifted and talented) program.

Below are the elementary schools, numbers of students and specialty programs provided in that school:

  • Aspen, 366 students — computers, music, art, P.E.
  • Bonneville (Title 1 school) 502 students — computers, P.E., Autism unit, Title 1 inclusion.
  • Cascade, 701 students — Chinese immersion program, computers, music, art, P.E., and life skills unit.
  • Centennial (recently built to combine Scera Park and Hillcrest), 687 students — computers, music, art, STEM, life skills, American Sign Language, adaptive P.E.
  • Cherry Hill, 680 students — Spanish immersion program, computers, art, pre-school and Title 1 inclusion.
  • Foothill, 542 students — computers, BTS arts, ALL program, P.E. three Autism units, adaptive P.E.
  • Northridge, 510 students — computers, art, BTS arts, pre-school, ballroom dance, two Autism units
  • Orchard, 691 students — Spanish immersion program, computers, music, art, P.E., pre-school.
  • Orem, 632 students — computers, music, P.E., pre-school, ALL (gifted and talented) program.
  • Parkside (Title 1), 567 students — music, STEM, Title 1 inclusion
  • Sharon (Title 1), 315 students — computers, music, P.E. Title 1 inclusion
  • Westmore (Title 1), 440 students — computers, music, P.E. Title 1 inclusion
  • Windsor (Title 1), 521 students — Spanish immersion program, computers, music, art, P.E., Title1 inclusion

While class sizes vary depending on grades, typically getting larger with each higher grade level, the average class size in Orem elementary schools is about 26 students per one teacher or full time equivalent. At the junior highs, the average is 28.5 students per FTE and at the high schools it is 30 students per FTE, according to ASD information.

A brochure printed by the PIC Orem’s Future states that 1 in 5.5 (the study says 1 in 6) students in Orem have left Alpine schools in the city because the district is not meeting their needs. The feasibility study suggests a large portion of those students likely return to the public school system if Orem had its own district.

McCarty used charter schools –like the Noah Webster Academy — along with home schools, private schools and other specialty options as examples of places where students and parents might change their minds and choose to return to the public schools if a new district were formed.

However, Noah Webster Academy allows only 500 students and has a long waiting list, the Utah Valley Homeschoolers is a highly active and acknowledged co-op group, and non-traditional schools, like the Utah County Academy of Sciences, would still exist as an option.

UCAS, based in Orem near Utah Valley University, is a magnet public high school that provides an unconventional opportunity for high school students who seek it. UCAS students travel from several school districts in Utah County.

While McCarty believes students would return to public schools, it is not verifiable how many students would return to an established Orem School District.

As for the percentage of students graduating, only Mountain View seems to have slipped significantly since 2017. The highest graduation rate for 2021 in ASD was Westlake High School, in Saratoga Springs, which graduated 96.6% of students.

Graduation statistics, provided by ASD, are as follows:

  • Mountain View High School, 88.4% (2021), 92.0% (2020), 91.2% (2019), 92.5% (2018) and 95.3% (2017).
  • Orem High School, 91.1% (2021), 94.7 (2020), 94.6 (2019), 93.5% (2018) and 95.0% (2017).
  • Timpanogos High School, 91.0% (2021), 91.4% (2020), 93.3% (2019), 92.3% (2018) and 92.9% (2017).

Nicolle Scott, a proponent of splitting off and forming an Orem School District, said, “Hundreds of studies have found that students who attend small schools outperform those in large schools on every academic measure from grades to test scores. Students are less likely to dropout and more likely to attend college. Small schools also build strong communities.”

In June, StrongerTogether released results of a survey of Orem-only educators regarding the formation of an Orem district. The survey gathered the views of teachers, administrators and other ASD employees working in Orem schools regarding the possible formation of an Orem-only school district.

Findings from the survey noted educators are overwhelmingly opposed (91.5%) to the formation of a separate district. And, a majority of teachers (84.4%) expressed that they would seek to remain with ASD if voters came out in favor of the Orem district.

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