Park City School District Board of Education hears solutions in wake of state audit

Andrew Caplan, the school board president, requests monthly updates from curriculum team

Park City School District Board of Education President Andrew Caplan listens to speakers during a meeting in June.
Park Record file photo by David Jackson

The Park City School District Board of Education will start receiving monthly updates from the School District’s curriculum experts following a critical audit completed by the state

However, the board and district officials maintain the schools are still doing well overall.

Utah’s Office of the Legislative Auditor General earlier this week released the findings around eight months after the systemic performance survey of Park City Schools began. The state audit found flaws in virtually every category from complying with environmental and building regulations, to bolstering underperforming student groups, improving strategic planning efforts and using additional student analytics systems.

While the data affirmed the School District is among the top-performing in the state, and even the country, it also determined the schools could be doing more — particularly to support different student groups as the need increases.

“This (academic) performance overshadows the lower performance of more disadvantaged students in the District,” the state audit said. “We recommend that the district provide better support for their underperforming student groups, with more oversight and accountability of schools and their planning for designated student groups.”

A state-defined student group exists in a school if there are 10 or more students who fit into a given demographic category such as whether they are economically disadvantaged, have a disability, are Hispanic or learning English as a new language. Student groups within a school performing below the lowest 5% of other schools across the state are flagged for Additional Targeted Support and Improvement. 

The School District had 12 of these targeted support groups across six of its seven schools, not including Park City High School, as of 2022. The number is up from nine groups in 2018 and 11 groups in 2019. Only one group had made sufficient progress toward Utah Board of Education requirements by the end of the calendar year.

Around 46% of disadvantaged students in Park City schools were at benchmark in 2020 compared to 85% of non-disadvantaged students, according to the audit. The North Summit School District, meanwhile, has been able to close the academic achievement gap between all students with numbers around 78% and 80%, respectively. 

This led the state audit to recommend School District administrators do more to hold each of the schools accountable. The audit also recognized the existing examples in the elementary schools show that the district is already moving toward aligning its practices, which can help with students’ overall success.

“That’s been something that’s been an issue for the Board and the School District for at least 10 years,” Andrew Caplan, the Board of Education president, said in an interview. “Equity is one of our five strategic pillars, and I think you can see a lot of areas of success when it comes to closing the achievement gap.”

Caplan pointed to the increased graduation rate among first-generation students and the growing likelihood that they’ll attend college. The overall participation in AP classes, especially among the underperforming groups has also increased, he said. Metrics were not measured in the high school because it doesn’t have any Additional Targeted Support and Improvement designations.

The income disparity between the School District’s demographic is also a unique factor, Caplan said. He recognized a need for improvements and affirmed officials were working hard to solve the problem. One future solution is universal preschool, which will help reduce learning gaps at the beginning of students’ academic careers.

Stacey Briggs, the district’s chief teaching and learning officer, and other representatives from her department met with the school board during the Tuesday meeting to provide an overview of their measurable strategic goals for 2023, which assesses third-grade reading, English language learners, eighth-grade math, ACT scores and the graduation rate.

Teaching and learning staff said they are moving the needle in terms of educational equity despite the audit findings.

They highlighted a multi-tiered system of support approach to guide educators. It includes screening students for academic needs, diagnosing the best intervention, supporting the student through teachers or English as a Second Language specialist depending on the need and evaluating progress after four to six weeks.

The audit findings have also led to new collaborations at the teacher level in a professional learning community, according to Briggs. Student performance data will be addressed there. Staff will also ensure there’s alignment through strategic pillars and the district plan as well as a digestible way to tackle the issues via 30-day, quarterly and yearly outlooks.

The state audit praised an innovative student analytics system employed by the School District that can evaluate teacher effectiveness and track students’ growth, but the report said officials should expand on the program’s uses.

But Caplan on Tuesday was critical of the flat trend lines among all students. 

“Some of these numbers, relative they look good. But on an absolute basis, they look pretty abysmal. A number that 50% of third graders are at their reading level, to me, is a significant issue. If you can’t learn by third grade — you start to learn through reading as opposed to learning to read. Fifty percent of kids are already behind,” he said during the meeting. “Some of these numbers are worrying especially if they’re on a flat trajectory.”

He later told The Park Record the data comes through standardized testing, which has its own flaws, but affirmed the Board of Education always wants to see improvements versus stagnation.

Caplan requested Briggs start returning for monthly updates so school board members can better understand what resources are needed and develop better ideas for empowering the School District. 

Other findings

Caplan and Heidi Matthews, a spokesperson for the School District, both indicated the audit results did not come as a surprise and said they appreciated the third-party analysis.

“Some of the things they focused on are known already. The fact that we have contaminated soil on the Kearns campus, known. The fact that we’re having ongoing conversations with the Department of Environmental Quality, known. The fact that the guidance has changed, known. The fact that we had issues with the permitting process of our capital projects, that’s well known and well covered,” Caplan said. 

He indicated the School District’s construction fiasco was the result of changes in the planning process as well as confusion about permitting due to a divergence between the city and county governments. Summit County officials maintain they were right to issue stop work orders when no permits were obtained. This resulted in construction delays and additional costs.

Caplan was also critical of recommendations that the School District create additional internal controls for better oversight after contaminated soil was placed near Treasure Mountain Junior High. He suggested the School District could consider hiring non-education experts if the state didn’t redirect around $30 million of Park City taxpayer money to other districts. 

Superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea told the Board of Education the district is going to create an environmental regulations governance plan to help collect data and transfer institutional knowledge. The audit determined the soil was first excavated in 2018 with more waste added next to it in 2022 following “a breakdown in governance.”

Board of Education members hope to continue being good fiduciaries and allocate appropriate resources to the School District, according to Caplan.

“Focus on the data outcomes, on the academic achievement outcomes, on the rankings that we have. The school board is happy with the direction of the district,” he said. “We can always do a better job, especially with things that aren’t our core expertise like building and land management.”

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