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With year of celebrations, Murray School District keeps focus on student learning

Jan 01, 2018 10:26AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Murray High students and alumni dance at the centennial ball at the state capitol. (Jodi Mismash/Murray High School)

Gallery: Murray [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

It was a year of celebrations — Murray High turning 100 years old; 25 years of both “The Nutcracker” at McMillan Elementary and of bell choir at Horizon Elementary; 20 years of Longview Elementary’s Shakespeare productions; and the return of the Spartan marching band after a 25-year absence. 

This is part of what makes up the slogan, “We are Murray,” said Superintendent Jennifer Covington.

“We are celebrating Murray City, Murray students, Murray parents and those who are supporting the city school district,” she said.

Yet through all the celebrations, the focus of Murray School District has remained constant, Covington said.

“We are focused on student learning and outcomes,” she said.

Part of this has meant hiring full-time elementary and secondary directors, Missy Hamilton and Robin Williams, respectively, this past summer to focus on Utah Core Standards and focus on improving student learning, said Covington, a former Hillcrest Junior High principal who became superintendent in July.

“We want to have ‘experts’ to take ownership of our curriculum and serve as a mentor for our principals and to develop a consistent model and structure that is research-based. They’ll work with professional learning communities to keep moving student learning forward,” she said.

They also will work with others to move forward on the Murray Board of Education’s standards — to provide learning opportunities for students to excel personally, professionally and academically; to foster a culture of mutual respect, leadership development, transparency, and collaboration; to integrate technology to impact student achievement; and to ensure responsible stewardship over financial resources.

“This provides us a focus as a district to have a good vision and implement it into schools,” Covington said. “We are developing leadership at all levels and supporting professional learning opportunities to enhance teacher training.”

Already, the District has been moving forward toward that vision. This past year, more than 30 teachers received the Digital Teaching and Learning Grant to incorporate more technology into the classroom. They received Chromebooks for their classrooms, training on how to implement the devices, and ongoing technology support throughout the year.

“As digital natives, our students need to come prepared digitally ready and literate and that’s just not literacy anymore,” Hamilton said. “We need to harness that knowledge they have for more student growth and income. Our teachers are more willing than ever to teach with technology so we need to provide them with the software, the hardware and whatever is needed with technology to impact student learning,” she said.

The District was able to provide this through a three-year grant received this spring from the State Office of Education for more than $500,000, Hamilton said. 

The District also is wiring all schools with wireless access in every classroom.

“If we want kids to use technology, we need to get connected,” Covington said, adding that funding comes from not just District money, but also E-Rate federal funds. 

Benchmark testing to evaluate student learning will continue to be a focus in the upcoming year, she said.

“We want students to know and understand standards and through benchmark testing, teachers can determine student mastery of the subjects,” Covington said.

Teachers, who will receive a raise for the 2018 school year, create those benchmark tests.

Former Superintendent Steve Hirase, who retired June 30, 2017, said that with the raise, it makes the District the second highest paying District in the Salt Lake Valley.

“We had a couple things that happened that allowed us to do this,” Hirase said. “First, we had a 10 percent decrease in our insurance costs — which never happens these days — and second, the county school district equalization ended and the District was able to ‘capture’ those dollars to use for employee raises.”

As Murray Rotary president, Hirase has kept involved with students through Rotary-sponsored high school Interact Club.

“The Rotary Club has been doing service in the community and would like to involve as many people as possible,” he said. “It gives our students an opportunity to serve.”

Already this year, the Interact Club has helped Rotary Club with the Cottonwood River cleanup, bringing 100 Murray High students on a Saturday in November to remove garbage, clear leaves and branches and paint over graffiti along the river, said Lynley Hogan, Murray High history teacher and Interact Club adviser.

“It made a night and day difference,” she said. “With that many volunteers, we were really effective.”

The group, along with Murray High theatre students, also was slated to help the Rotary with Operation Santa — a chance to welcome students from Horizon and Parkside elementaries to an opportunity to shop with members of the fire and police departments for the holidays. 

“The high school kids will be dressed up as princesses to superheroes to greet and welcome the students and their families to make them feel comfortable,” Hirase said.

The 40-member Interact Club also raised $500 for hurricane relief and will continue to do monthly service projects this school year, possibly with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and refugees.

“The students learned that every little bit counts and together we can make a difference,” Hogan said. “These kids are looking for opportunities to serve, but through service, they also have a chance to lead, plan and follow-up.”

Murray High students also have looked at ways to serve within their walls as seniors Kate Spackman and Emily Bowen created a Cinderella’s Closet — a place at the school where girls can rent, for as low as $20, one of 100 semi-formal or formal dresses from Cinderella’s Closet for school dances. 

“It’s an opportunity for girls to wear an affordable dress to go to a dance,” said Emily Bowen, Murray High senior class vice president and Cinderella Closet coordinator. “More and more girls are using dresses, which is great.”

Emily said they now have some sophomores and juniors who are helping with the Cinderella Closet and will take it over next year.

“We plan to continue the program as long as people continue to use it,” she said. “We still receive donations from both people and dress shops.”

Many of the girls who attended Murray High’s Centennial Ball May 26 at the capitol had the opportunity to wear a dress from Cinderella’s Closet. The event was open to current and former students and families.

“Whole families came, from grandparents to aunts and uncles to current students,” said Cherie Clawson, who coordinated the gala with Jodi Mismash. “It was a blast to see all the families growing up in Murray and staying in Murray — and celebrating this historic event.”

That wasn’t the only way Murray High celebrated. There was a centennial reception for former students, teachers and administrators that brought back several teachers and students who reminisced about days when they were the Smelterites and recalling the shortage of paper during World War II which caused the 1943 yearbook not to be fully printed — as they looked through yearbooks of other years. 

At nearby Murray City Hall, five display cases showed highlights of Murray High memorabilia, including the 1939 yearbook called Yarrum (Murray spelled backwards, the only year it was called that). There were dresses sewn in home economics classes, wooden ducks and bowls made in shop classes, student body officer sweaters, report cards and a business handwriting certificate, articles about the posture parade, a Murray High pennant and a championship basketball.

“The display shows the real culture of Murray and Murray High through the years and the stories of real people come to life through this exhibit,” Mary Ann Kirk, Murray City’s cultural arts director, said.

The theme of “We are Murray” continued in the hallways of Murray High with banners of the first graduating class as well as others. Some of the earliest students were honored at a pep assembly that included five former 90-year-old-plus students.

“They all had stories to tell about what their experiences were,” said John Goldhardt, former Murray High principal. “It was really special. We wanted to honor the people and let them know we appreciated what they’ve done for Murray. The first principal and faculty set the tone for Murray High. The school was to close after that first year of five graduates, but they stood up and said education is important to this community. Now, 100 years later, we’ve had thousands of graduates.”

The plan to honor these students at halftime of the homecoming football game, was canceled because of inclement weather, however the community had a chance to celebrate “We are Murray” at other halftimes with the return of the Spartan marching band after a 25-year absence. 

After participating in three summertime parades in Murray, Taylorsville and Pleasant Grove with about 50 students from Murray High and Hillcrest and Riverview junior highs, the 32 high-schoolers continued to march in the fall with polo shirts and black pants, as they are continuing to fundraise for uniforms, in a show that directors Zach Giddings and color guard coach Kylee Schramm created entitled, “Generic.”

“It was a show within a show,” Giddings said. “We had signs that showed ‘opener,’ ‘ballad,’ ‘drum break,’ ‘solo,’ and all the components of a standard marching formula. It is what everyone does and it gave the judges a good laugh. It was a hit with everyone.”

The marching band also took part at three competitions — Mt. Nebo, Wasatch Front and Mt. Timpanogos Invitational, typically earning second-, third- and fourth-place finishes both overall as well as in visual and color guard divisions.

“For our first year, I’ll gladly take how well we did — and how much better we got during the season. We are planning to go on tour to St. George this coming year and hope to grow to at least 50 kids on the field next year. Marching band is a fun entity that brings pride to the school and the community,” he said.

The pride in the Murray community also was apparent as students from all schools participated in the “Murray is My Home” dance festival, coordinated by Kirk. 

“It was amazing,” she said at the May 18 event, “It showcased a lot of history with dances from many of the ethnic groups of students who attended Murray High through the years. The students have been practicing at their schools and so now, just seeing it all come together is memorable. It’s an experience many of them never have had — to perform in such a large group at the same time.”

Other opportunities at elementaries have become — or are becoming — traditions. For 25 years, bell choir has been a part of Horizon students’ lives. Traditionally, third-grade students eagerly participate and are excited to play their signature piece, “Carol of the Bells” during their holiday concert, which this past year was Dec. 13.

At McMillan, it was 25 years ago when McMillan first-grade teacher Kathy Reynolds and former McMillan teacher Joyce Standley took a children’s play of “The Nutcracker” that was printed in a December 1976 Woman’s Day magazine to the school stage. 

“We did it that year,” Reynolds said, after agreeing to try the play in the magazine. “We stuck our necks out and used the magazine’s idea of cardboard boxes as trees and thrones and thought, ‘There’s magic in this program.’ The principal said that it’s a production the students will never forget and it will be a highlight. I’ve run into the kids 20 years later and they say, ‘I was a Russian’ or ‘I was a soldier.’ They remember. This has been the most incredible thing.” 

The magic has continued for 20 years at Longview Elementary as sixth-grade teachers have not just taught Shakespeare, but turned their students into thespians after learning about the time period from making family crests and a coat of arms to learning more than 100 things about The Renaissance.

It began when now fifth-grade teacher Tina Nilsson was inspired by both a college “Intro to Shakespeare” class she took.

“I got the bug…to share Shakespeare with students,” she said. “I gathered scripts from, what was then, an outdated – no longer being published – theatre book called, ‘Shake Hands with Shakespeare’ and I brought that to my first job, here at Longview Elementary, hoping to begin a program wherein children could perform and value great literature like Shakespeare.”

Since then, the school has created their own mini-Renaissance festival, with students presenting vignettes of several plays each February. Through the years, students have been invited to perform at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City.

“When students return to Longview or meet up with one of us in the community, there is always a hug and a thank you and guess what they always remember? Shakespeare,” Nilsson said.

Traditions all have a beginning and several are in the early stages at Viewmont Elementary, including their YES! Day. 

When Viewmont Elementary students follow their school’s code of conduct, called the Eagle Code, they get to celebrate with YES! Day, said Hamilton, who was Viewmont’s principal before taking the District position this past summer.

“Each month, we’re recognizing our students who are exemplifying our Eagle Code and celebrating the fact our students are doing great things,” she had said. “We’re seeing much more positive behavior. There’s been a huge decline in bullying and classroom disruptions. Last year, we had 211 infractions. This year, we’ve only had four. It’s about us coming together to recognize a good thing. We’re building our community and at the same time, saying these things matter. Plus, it’s just been a lot of fun for the students to earn tickets and then celebrate being good.”

School counselor Sharon Zullo (SP) said that it has shifted attitudes and behaviors.

“The kids are really excited to earn Eagle tickets so they focus on doing what is right,” she said. “We’ve had them stop, slow down and think first about their behavior. Now, it’s become second nature. It’s been a big motivator in school behavior and they’re learning how to save their tickets as they know what’s coming up and want to participate in a big ticket item.”

This past year, some of the activities students could use their Eagle tickets for included attending a magic show, petting alpacas that visited from Gardner Village, dipping strawberries and marshmallows in a chocolate fountain, trying out a manual wheelchair and going on a spooky tour of the school.

Viewmont Parent-Teacher Association President Kelly Taeoalii said that it’s been a hit.

“It’s working well and it hasn’t lost its appeal,” she said. “YES! Day has created an absolutely positive environment and has improved behavior. It’s something the kids look forward to and with so many ideas to reward kids, there isn’t an end to the life cycle — the sky is the limit.”

Another opportunity Viewmont second-graders in Susan Routledge’s classroom have is to listen to a mystery reader share a favorite childhood book with students.

“I give parents a date to arrange a mystery reader,” Routledge said. “The students don’t know when they’ll have a mystery reader come and when a mystery reader comes, it allows the child to feel so special.”

Many times it may be a parent or grandparent who is visiting, but already this year, Murray Police Chief Craig Burnett and Superintendent Covington have visited students.

“It’s great to get out and read in the schools with the students,” Covington said. “It’s fantastic way for students to get excited about reading and have fun at the same time.”

Getting involved in school and community — both academically and in extra-curricular activities — is a goal current Murray High Principal Scott Wihongi has with the introduction of the new Murray Medallion, which will be worn by the first students who have earned enough points at the 2018 graduation ceremony.

“The hope is to get students more involved in the many opportunities at school,” he said. “Many students involve themselves in only a few ways. This program encourages getting involved in many ways, whether that is a team, a club, taking rigorous classes, improving attendance, improving academics. It helps to make their education more well-rounded and take pride in their school and community.”

Education, Today

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