OGDEN - Parents all over Utah will welcome the news that reading scores have improved notably across the state. But the biggest turnaround occurred in Ogden, where in just one year, four elementary schools escaped the bottom-ten list.
Eighty-two percent of Utah students scored proficient on last year's end-of-level tests. But this year, that number rose to 84 percent. The progress was even more dramatic among minority students.
Dee and Odyssey elementary schools in Ogden saw the most dramatic increases in language arts scores. Dee jumped from 42 percent to 74 percent last spring, while Odyssey increased from 47 percent to 72 percent.
The Ogden School District faces tough challenges of poverty and language barriers, but administrators, teachers and students have shown what is possible when everyone is working hard toward a common goal.
"It is really exciting to see what is happening in Ogden," said Judy Park with the Utah State Office of Education. "Particularly their increases were much greater than the increases we saw in the state."
Dee Elementary School was worst in the state last year for reading scores. Now in the middle of the pack, Dee has made one of the best turnarounds. Other Ogden schools -- Odyssey, TO Smith, and James Madison -- have all made substantial progress in one year that defies the critics.
Dramatic changes made
It didn't happen by accident. Sweeping measures in several areas seem to be working.
First, these schools had dozens of volunteer community tutors that worked one on one with struggling readers. Students and tutors found it life changing.
"It helps me with words and helps me with learning," said student Noelia Castro.
Tutor Cheryl Hoth was pleased with the changes.
"It was a great experience," she said. "I wouldn't have traded it for anything else that I was doing last year."
Ogden schools also had peer tutors, older kids helping younger students to reinforce reading. Changes were implemented on a district level as well, the most controversial being the rotation of principals. Two high school principals were called in to lead two of the lowest-performing elementary schools.
"What they tried to do was match your personality and skills to the needs of the school," said James Madison Elementary School principal Vincent Ardizzone.
They also implemented data-driven teaching -- acknowledging what they were doing wasn't working and using testing to help teachers address each student's shortfalls.
It wasn't comfortable or easy. But in the end, they saw even more dramatic gains than they'd boldly predicted.
"I was so, so excited," said Mrs. JM, principal of Dee Elementary. "To see it officially reported on the state's website, we just screamed in the meeting we were in."
Principals we spoke with said the biggest lesson learned was to stop putting the blame for bad test scores on other people or demographics. Instead, they chose to learn how to have the practices in place to build the expectation for success.
That's what they're doing in Ogden.
A small army of volunteer tutors helped contribute to Ogden's success. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the United Way helped recruit volunteers who were then trained by AmeriCorps.
We asked a third grader from Madison Elementary, his mother and tutor to share their experience. Noah Parkinson jumped seven reading levels.
"That's a big deal," Noah said. "That's awesome. It's good."
Bob Hunter is the volunteer tutor who worked with Noah. He said he connected with Noah by getting to know him and figuring out what his interests were.
"I honestly didn't know what the outcome would be, but he and I hit it off right in the beginning," said Hunter. "He started out by telling me he was a math whiz, so I knew if he was a math whiz, he could also become a reading whiz. He is doing very well."
Noah's mother, Victoria Gomez, is thrilled with the progress her son has made.
"It means a lot that somebody has time to focus on him because I get off work and I have other kids with activities," she said. "I have to pick someone up and drop someone off so my time is slim in the evenings."
Gomez has seen real results. "Before he didn't like to read so much at home and now he will actually sit a little bit and read," she said. "It's a relief because most parents want their child to excel in whatever they do and reading was one of the things he struggled with."
Hunter says the rewards have been mutual. "He's been a good student," he said. "One that makes me want to come back again and again and again."