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Teacher Ryan Hansen stood at the front of his Glendale Middle School classroom on Thursday in front of nearly two dozen state and federal education officials and spit some rhymes.
"Seven goes to 21 three times," Hansen and his eighth-graders rapped together as part of their math lab, a class meant to support low-performing students in addition to their primary math classes. "Seven goes to 28 four times."
The state and U.S. Department of Education officials laughed at the creative way to practice math before shuffling off to a roundtable to discuss the school's progress in recent years. The federal education leaders visited Glendale, along with a number of other Utah schools and colleges this week, as part of their "Education Drives America" bus tour across the nation. They are spending three days in Utah.
They visited Glendale to showcase the school's progress as a recipient of a School Improvement Grant, meant for low performing schools in the state. Schools that get the grants must make major reforms to improve student performance. Glendale and 13 other Utah schools have so far received more than $23 million in grant money. Glendale also got a Priority Schools grant from the National Education Association to help further its efforts.
When Glendale got the School Improvement grant in 2010, its principal was replaced. The school also lengthened the school day and year and added extra reading and math classes for struggling students. Teachers were allowed to transfer, and over the last couple years, nearly 40 of the school's teachers have either left or been replaced, said Deb Burlingame, an English Language Development teacher.
Several teachers said Thursday that implementing the grant and following its requirements wasn't easy. But they said there's a noticeable difference in the school now.
"The long hours and the meetings initially just seemed very difficult," said eighth-grade language arts teacher Kim Perry, "but ... when I think back to the first year and where the students were at, their attitude is so different from where they are now."
Teacher Michael Denker said he feels that teachers have had more freedom to experiment and work with colleagues since schools received the grant. And parent Haythum Ibrahim said parents have a lot of confidence in the new principal.
"Administrators can improve the school or break it," Ibrahim said.
Several students said Thursday they can feel the difference from several years ago. Jose Gomez, one of Hansen's math lab students, said he likes his teachers and "the environment changed."
Glendale Principal Chris Gesteland said, so far, the school's seen marginal improvement in its test scores, but Burlingame said she thinks the school is picking up steam. About one-quarter of Glendale's students are learning English, and nearly all of them qualify for free and reduced price lunches.
Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, who was part of the group visiting Glendale on Thursday, said it's important to find what's working in schools across the U.S. and apply those strategies systemically.
Over the years, there's been much opposition in Utah to the federal government's involvement in education, including criticism from some conservatives over a recent No Child Left Behind waiver Utah received that will require low-performing schools implement some of the same reforms as Glendale, among other things.
But Kanter said Thursday the School Improvement Grants are "a stimulus to say we won't accept failure." She said failure hasn't be the fault of Republicans or Democrats, but rather everyone, and now everyone must work together toward improvement.
The federal officials will have participated in more than a dozen events over the course of their visit here, including roundtables about college affordability, college access, teacher preparation programs and counselors, among other things.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will visit other states as part the bus tour, and a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said the department hopes to get Duncan to Utah in the near future. This is the department's third annual bus tour, and this is the first time it's stopped in Salt Lake City.