Since leaving California for Utah 16 years ago, Salt Lake City School District Executive Director for Teaching and Learning Tiffany Hall says she's spent the past six years in the district she always wanted to teach in.
And Superintendent Lexi Cunningham says she can't imagine where the district would be without Hall, who she noted is visible as a leader not just in the district's schools but at the state level as well.
Among the district's focuses is a vision of what it takes for the whole child to be successful, beyond concerns of how many minutes of literacy they receive or what books are being used for science.
"We have to worry about how all of those things play in together to make sure that students are successful and happy," Hall told Education Dive. "I think that's the reason I really wanted to work in the Salt Lake district, is we look at every child and we are really trying to ensure that when they come to our schools, wherever they've been, whatever they've done, we're going to find a way for them to be welcomed and successful."
We recently caught up with Hall to learn more about the district's efforts to keep music and arts programs running strong, as well as the supports it's providing students in its goal to boost reading proficiency levels.
EDUCATION DIVE: Salt Lake City has worked to standardize its music and art programs, but many districts nationwide have struggled with how to continue this programming amid the high-stakes testing accountability pressures they face. Are there particular challenges the district had to overcome to keep these prominent in curriculum?
TIFFANY HALL: We have three comprehensive high schools. And, coming from California, they're not very big. My high schools in California were 4,000 students, but these are 2,000 or 1,800. Between these three schools — and Utah does have a focus on music and arts as a general state [standard] — we thought, “What our district needs is an honors orchestra.”
What we discovered was we didn't have enough overall expertise in the district to mount an orchestra. We had a lot of students who were exceptional soloists, and we had students who were being accepted to university programs and to The Juilliard School and to many different prestigious places for music. But it was because they were doing things outside of school, not because of the program that we provided.
We started to dig into that a little bit more and really look at some of the patterns of course taking we had in our district and ... we came up with a five-year plan to have an honors orchestra. What that means is we needed to look back down into the elementary school and make sure we could provide a cohesive program through 4th, 5th and 6th grade, and then look at our offerings across the district in middle school and make sure we weren't cutting that off.
As you can imagine in our higher-performing schools, they had more instructional time to devote to things like music instead of things like literacy. When we looked at several of our Title I schools, those were schools principals have [been told] the better thing to do is to take that time and put it into literacy. But what we really needed to do was look at the overall time in the school day.
Many of our Title I schools have a longer school day than required by law. In Utah, we are required to have about 990 hours of instruction a year, and some of our Title I schools will have 1,100. In doing that, they did two things: They were able to build teacher planning time into the school day, and they were also able to create a period of time we could provide enrichment to students, so things like music and a structured PE class and art classes are now able to happen during the school day.
I know the focus on literacy is getting everybody to be proficient, but you can't just work on making sure kids can read. You have to make sure kids have things they can do that they love, that make them happy. And we know arts and music are often things our students in Title I schools don't have access to private training or lessons in outside of school.
We made a push this year. We worked with our music teachers and completely restructured the way we provide music so we have a more equitable spread. Every 4th, 5th and 6th grader will get the same amount of music training. We put some grant money and some district money toward making sure we had enough instruments that any student who didn't own one would be able to have an instrument to take home and practice.
With the district's goal to raise all students’ reading proficiency levels by 3%, what sort of planning went not just into building out that goal but also into planning supports like individualized learning and secondary reading courses and formative assessments?
HALL: That has been an enormous undertaking. I have an amazing literacy director, Peggy Patterson, who has really picked this up and run with it. Again, the first thing we had to do was look at where we were using instructional minutes. You have such a finite number of those and we want to make sure they're being used well.
One of the things we have had in our district was 45 minutes set aside for students who were English language learners. As part of this program, we started to think about what does the day look like? And if we have that 45 minutes, how could we use that to work with all of our students in the ways they need around English language?
For some of those students, it's the acquisition of the English language. And for some, it's really developing reading skills. And then for some (others), it's providing enhancement and enrichment activities to make sure they're reading and still growing even though they're proficient.
One piece of that was beginning to look at how we use time to make sure we were meeting the needs of every student. Within that time, we needed to look at the materials we were using. We have an adopted core curriculum for English language arts and we have an adopted curriculum for English language development. We standardized those two pieces so they fit into each other and feed each other. That was more time efficient, but we also realized we needed to do some things like boost the phonics program.
We've been working on some push-in curriculum lessons with our academic coaches. Every one of our Title I schools has at least a half-time literacy coach. Schools with high needs can have a full-time or a half-time. And then every school in our district has at least a quarter-time literacy coach to help work with teachers and make sure they are able to use formative assessment.
We have a structured program so every student has access to grade-level instruction, and then they'll have time for small group instruction based on their need, with their teacher or another teacher in a small group. And then they'll have individualized instruction being aided with computer instruction.
We're hoping that three-tiered approach of grade-level, large-group targeted, small-group individualized work is really going to help us build our literacy program. We've been developing reading classes for the middle school and the high school that do the same thing, but we're using what's called the FORI model (fluency oriented reading instruction) for large group and then small group with the teacher.
As students come in and we see on the reading inventory that they're significantly below grade level, we're able to put them in a semester course that will help them get up to grade level and be able to access high-school-level curriculum in an effective way.
Given the recognition in recent years of how prevalent an issue dyslexia is nationwide, are you also incorporating supports for that?
HALL: Dyslexia is a difficult one to deal with because we can't diagnose it. There are some pieces to that that are difficult within a state because we aren't doctors. But we do have supports in place.
Our state put out a really nice publication for teachers about working with students with dyslexia. We try to have at least one person at each school who has some advanced training in that, who could help mentor or work with teachers as they identify that. We've been piloting some programs using eBooks at the elementary school, as well as the secondary schools, that have the option of flipping into a dyslexia mode that makes it easier for students to read on a screen.
We're hoping we'll be able to engage students who are dyslexic in continuing to read for pleasure. We know that's something that sometimes doesn't happen, but by using some of these research-based tools, we hope we can get to a little bit more of an engaging time for them as readers.