Schools across Summit County will be filled with laughter and learning from the lunchroom to the library as students make their return this coming week.
Classes in the Park City School District start on Tuesday while lessons in the East Side school districts resume a day later.
The back-to-school season is particularly exciting for North Summit Schools Superintendent Jerre Holmes. He’s held the position for the past 12 years and has witnessed how the role of schools has changed. And in his district, that means taking a holistic approach.
“We’re pleased with the academic part of it, but more importantly, because it isn’t just about testing, I think that our teachers do a phenomenal job of helping kids with confidence and their wellbeing,” Holmes said. “We are interested in the whole child, not just the core subjects. It’s important that when we send them out the door when they graduate, they have a good background and some opportunities based on the experiences they’ve had.”
The 2022-2023 school year was successful for the North Summit School District, Holmes said. He pointed to reading scores at the elementary level that are improving year after year, great testing numbers at the middle school and high ACT scores for high schoolers.
Feeling satisfied with the curriculum, Holmes said there won’t be a lot of change during the 2023-2024 academic year and teachers will focus on enhancing what’s already in place.
For example, a new partnership will help students in construction-based careers and technology education pathways give back to the community. Those in the level three course will be tasked with building a tiny home, which is part of an effort to house unsheltered people in the Salt Lake area. The school was provided with the materials with the goal of students completing the structure by the end of the school year.
Another small but valuable change was the decision to let students in the high school’s mountain bike and rodeo clubs, which are not officially sponsored activities, participation count toward their physical education credit.
A new statue honoring Chief Washakie will also be installed on the high school sports field on Sept. 27, around two years after it was renamed in honor of the Shoshone Tribe leader.
The School District also hired a new mental health counselor in addition to a therapist provided by the county to address the growing demand for services. Holmes was hopeful having a mental health professional on-site for an extra day would help educators stay on top of the need. Although some of the students’ issues might have been brought on by the coronavirus, he guessed it’s also part of the world today with new technologies like social media.
“We just want them to be able to improve their skills and get better at the things they’re struggling with. The goal is to make them feel better than when they walked in,” Holmes said. “Mental wellness is as important as their academic wellness. You can be as smart as you want, but if you’re not feeling good about yourself, it’s pretty hard to share those talents.”
Three new teachers were also hired this year as well as several aides to replace those who have retired. Otherwise, there hasn’t been much turnover.
Teachers also worked hard during the pandemic to prevent learning gaps during periods of at-home learning. Holmes said the School District quickly realized students wanted to be in school, which prompted them to take the right precautions to attend classes in person and take in learning beyond the book. He noted the students with the biggest educational delays moved to North Summit from out of state.
While the Utah Legislature gave teachers raises, the decision was tied to a new voucher system that would give families up to $8,000 in public funding toward private schooling or homeschooling expenses. Holmes was thankful for the salary increase, but he expressed concerns it may eventually lead to more state dollars being diverted from public education.
The state also gave schools additional funds to improve safety. Holmes said a North Summit safety committee is currently assessing their campus security procedures to determine how they could improve. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office provides a school resource officer and the School District also hired a security guard last year.
The East Side superintendent said the school always tries to be on the cutting edge; something that ensured district staff were prepared when COVID began. But advancements in technology, such as AI, could also bring unique challenges for educators this year and in the future.
Another looming discussion in North Summit is construction. Holmes said the School District is currently in limbo with building improvements, but administrators recognize the high school is aging and a new one is on the horizon. He anticipated the conversation is still a few years away.
“It’s not just business as usual, but we’re in a place right now where we feel good about what we’re doing,” Holmes said. “We’re still small enough that we can be there for every kid.”