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South Jordan Journal

Paradigm exits turnaround status, state school board learns from experience

Aug 23, 2021 10:14AM ● By Julie Slama

Paradigm School successfully exited turnaround status this past June, with the support of students and families who have stood behind the charter school. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When American International School of Utah, a Murray-based charter school, abruptly closed its doors in 2019, parent Megan Powell scrambled to find new schools for her children that were small in size and would offer unique opportunities. At Paradigm, she found a new home for two of her kids.

“I loved the small class sizes,” Powell said. “I like that it has an arts program that my children would enjoy. I like that the school believes in families, and I like the conservative values and love of country.”

However, what she didn’t know was that Paradigm School was on a turnaround status.

“[That was] probably good that I didn’t know, because we would not have enrolled them in another school that could potentially close again,” she said.

Paradigm went on turnaround status in 2017.

The School Turnaround and Leadership Development Act, passed by the Utah Legislature in 2015, is a state initiative that identifies low-performing schools as being in the bottom three percent of schools statewide for two consecutive years. Those schools are provided outside resources and have three years to show improved academic achievement to exit out of the turnaround status.

Powell was “concerned but felt it was going to be OK” because school director Fernando Seminario “had said that they had met the goals to get off turnaround status; they had increased kids participating in the state testing, which apparently had been a big problem at the school.”

Instead of exiting, last year, the turnaround status was extended another year.

Even so, Powell’s children, Nian and Grace, remained at the charter school. 

Nian has an individualized educational plan, and Powell has found that with charter schools, he has had help without needing to fight for services.

“In just the couple of weeks that the kids had gone to classes, I had already seen a big change in Nian,” she said. “Paradigm has been a great fit for my soon-to-be 10th grader, Nian. He has always struggled to make friends and find a voice in his classes. In fact, he never spoke in school. He has made a small group of friends. He loves the small classes that make it easier to speak up. His mentors care about him and encourage him.” 

Powell said that NIan talks about what he learns in class “and he never used to do that. I consider Paradigm to be a miracle in Nian’s life and a major contributor to helping Nian to be his best self and become a valuable member of our community.”

Grace, too, likes Paradigm.

“When I was looking for a new school for them in case Paradigm would be shut down, and we actually got accepted into a new school, she said that the only way she wanted to leave Paradigm was if there was no other choice,” Powell said.

However, this past June, Paradigm had met the criteria and was removed successfully from the turnaround status.

“They usually just go off the state accountability data,” Seminario said about the first attempt to be off of turnaround status. “They have a pie chart, and we have to hit all those metrics; that’s what got us in. So, if we improve in those areas, that’s what would get us out. When we were compared to the other, five or six schools, we had moved the farthest away from all the schools, so we thought we are really secure. We had surpassed the expectations. But when COVID hit, that’s when they created a different criteria to exit and it was not the criteria that we had been working on those previous three years. We didn’t have the data they wanted to see; we now looked like we weren’t prepared to exit. It was really frustrating.”

Since there was no statewide assessment, the State School Board established a review board in April to evaluate schools’ data and make recommendations whether each school has demonstrated sufficient improvement to exit school turnaround status.

Schools seeking to exit turnaround status presented responses to the Board's guiding questions:

- Did the school achieve above the lowest 3% threshold using the 2018–2019 school accountability data/measures?
- Can the school provide evidence of substantial progress and growth in addition to the data in the accountability system?
- Does the school have qualitative and/or quantitative data from the implementation of its School Turnaround Plan that also demonstrates substantial improvement? 

According to documents prepared by a review panel for the state school board, Paradigm lacked showing consistent growth in its math and science scores.

Seminario said that although Paradigm had jumped from the bottom 3% percent to 30% from the bottom.

“They didn’t have confidence in our ability to stay out; we didn’t show enough growth,” he said. “We showed them that we had higher ACT scores and a higher graduation rate than the other two high schools that they did let out.” 

He also pointed out that 65% of Paradigm students have consistently opted out of standardized testing, and some students jump to college before graduation, which shows significantly a lower graduate rate when there are only about 75 in the commencement class, and that makes it hard to be measured on a standardized evaluation.

“Charter schools are created to be different, and each one is different,” Seminario said. “Then, we’re still measured on the standardized process and that always creates conflict.”

Powell said she had read the reports and attended school information meetings and “felt the school had been wronged. They had met the goals that they were supposed to meet, and now they’re being told that they weren’t testing enough, which was not part of the original complaint about the school.”

So, with the denial, Paradigm appealed the decision but found there was no appeal process. 

An appeals process was created and “what they determined was they would allow us to meet with what they called the audit committee.” Through that process, Paradigm received specific goals how to exit because “we never in all the years were given our exit targets, so we were shooting toward something that didn’t exist,” Seminario said.

On their second exit attempt, Seminario said specific feedback was shared with Paradigm on what was needed, and the auditors went through their presentation page by page, suggesting improvements.

“One good thing that came out of that audit hearing meeting was that a lot of people were made aware of that,” he said. “We felt the second time around, we were really helped and guided in the development of our exit presentation, and I think that made all the difference.” 

Seminario specifically acknowledged that support at the state board of education meeting.

“The second time, we had a better experience,” he said. “We had a lot of support. We have had just a great opportunity extended to us through turnaround to really face our challenges and find solutions for them that do fit with our unique mission. I feel that we have strengthen ourselves and have improved in all the areas that have been identified.”

Board member Molly Hart said she appreciated how Paradigm was able to keep its uniqueness of its charter school but yet is able to be transparent with its data.

“What they have is remarkable, and this data, certainly paints a more complete picture,” she said. “I’m just really excited for what they’re forward-facing with to their constituents and to their potential students in the community.” She said she hopes that Utah State Board of Education reflects on the experience to “make betterments” in the turnaround program.

Much of what changed at Paradigm were ways to evaluate students and set up specific processes, Seminario said.

For example, Paradigm now has students meeting together for morning announcements and the school pledge, then break into smaller groups. In these groups, students will work on individualized college and career plans during Kedge time, a term referring a small anchor; that will help them reflect on the importance of learning, he said. This specific time also will be when they do schoolwide activities or service projects instead of taking time from their seminar classes.

Another example is that instructors or mentors also will meet with each other and review students’ learning as well as their career goals, which was done previously, but not in a formal manner, he said.

“We’re going to keep a lot of it, especially the systems and structures, because they were really needed and now, we have them and can move on. I feel like I’m in a position as a leader now to really focus a lot more on building and creating new things, not just fixing problems, but really being creative and being innovative and coming up with different ideas that could be helpful to our school community,” he said. “Our parents have been acutely supportive. We’ve had a high retention rate. Our approval rating on our annual parent survey is always about 95 percent and these improvements have made us a better school.”

It’s not only parents, but students like Nian and Grace, who appreciate the opportunities they have at Paradigm.

Nian was in concert band this past year; Grace enjoyed her classes in Victorian experience and creative writing she and is looking forward to being on the yearbook staff. Grace also was amazed at how much money students could come together to fundraise to donate to good cause. This year, students donated to Operation Underground Railroad. 

They both like the small classes and individualized instruction.

“The best thing about Paradigm is the mentors; they get to know us and care about us,” Nian said.