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Kearns • Kearns High got a failing grade in the first round of legislatively mandated school grades, but Principal Maile Loo said there are things to be said for failure.

"Is it motivating? Sure it is. Will it kill us? No," Loo told four lawmakers who toured her school Monday.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she wanted colleagues to see some of the challenges faced by high schools in her district, which she called the most diverse in the state.

She was joined by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, on visits to Granger High, which got a D, and Kearns, which got an F.

Mayne said she hoped the school visits would give fellow lawmakers "a new vision" and that they would be inclined to tweak the school grades system, which has been criticized for oversimplifying a school's achievement by boiling it down to a single grade.

Loo said she didn't like that aspect of school grades. Nonetheless, the F got the school's attention and helped her focus on the problem: math.

"I've got some great math teachers but for some reason they got away from teaching the core," Loo said after meeting with the lawmakers. "The teachers were not owning their curriculum."

Increased focus has helped, she said.

Math tests at the end of the quarter showed great improvement, with students scoring 30 to 40 percentage points higher than they scored at the beginning of the year, she said.

Kearns has 1,520 students in grades 10-12 and will gain 627 more next year when the high school adds ninth grade. Its average class size is 36 to 40 students.

Loo told the lawmakers that improving the school's graduation rate means working with those new to high school: the sophomores. Many drop out in 10th grade, she said.

In her first year as principal, she had all 105 staff members take on one or two students at risk of dropping out.

The staff mentored the students individually, she said, and kept 98 percent of the 175 students.

That effort is paying off, she said. Before Loo arrived at Kearns High three years ago, 64 percent or 65 percent of students were graduating. Last year's rate has not yet been finalized since students have until early fall to complete school work, but it appears Kearns' graduation rate is up to 69 percent or 70 percent, she said.

Hughes told Loo and Granite School Superintendent Martin Bates that school grades system "is not meant to be a scarlet letter," but a way to help the Legislature understand how to improve education.

School Grades shows the victories occurring in Utah schools, he said. "We want to drill down and see those victories to see how those dollars are best spent."

Twitter: @KristenMoulton