New culture at Park City Learning Center breeds success
Principal aims to make attending the school a ‘privilege’
Tracy Sjostrom is aiming to change the culture of the Park City Learning Center.
The Learning Center, Park City School District’s alternative high school, has long been viewed by some as the place troubled teens are sent when they can’t succeed at Park City High School. Sjostrom, who is in her first school year as the Learning Center’s principal, however, doesn’t see it that way at all.
She said she’s doing as much as she can to make sure the students don’t see it that way, either. She and her staff have worked hard this year to forge strong connections with each student in an effort to show them there are a lot of people who care about their futures.
So far, it’s been successful. Sjostrom estimates she has suspended more than 5,000 students during 25 years in education, but she hasn’t had to deploy that measure once at the Learning Center. Students are buying in to the idea that it’s a privilege to be at the school, and they’re doing everything they can to make sure they can stay.
“I don’t suspend kids here,” she said. “I don’t have to. The behavior is outstanding, and it’s because of the relationships my teachers are building with kids. Kids feel like they’re heard and respected, and if there are ever any struggles, we sort it out. We sit down and talk about it and try to have restorative justice in place rather than getting in trouble.”
Sjostrom said fostering that kind of environment works wonders for students who are struggling at the traditional high school for a number of reasons, ranging from mental health issues to the lingering effects of trauma in their lives.
“I think what’s been the most meaningful thing is building relationships with kids,” she said. “I mean, we’ve all had our struggles. They see me and they think, ‘Wow, she’s had a great life.’ Well, I’ve had my own struggles. And when you recognize your own darkness, you can connect with the darkness of others. That’s what I’ve been able to do.”
Many of the students are grateful. Daliago Hary, for instance, said she suffers from anxiety, and attending the Learning Center has allowed her academic performance to flourish. For her, the Learning Center has quickly become more of a home than a school.
“I don’t dread coming to school,” she said. “I wake up every day excited to see my teachers’ faces and talk to them and learn. I used to think of school as some stupid thing that isn’t important, but the teachers here have made me realize that knowledge is power and learning is good. They genuinely care about you.”
In addition to creating a caring environment, Sjostrom and her staff aim to make learning fun. They take the students on field trips every few weeks, incorporating cross-curriculum lessons that involve several subjects. Additionally, on Fridays, students are given opportunities to learn what they want to — recently, they learned how to make sushi with the help of a chef from the Shabu restaurant.
Jordan Dowland, a student who splits time between the Learning Center and PCHS, says the difference between the two schools is night and day. For him, the Learning Center has been the perfect place to get his future on track.
“It makes you feel more comfortable,” he said. “They care about your life. They care about more than just the grades and the numbers that go in a computer.”
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.