While much has been accomplished, there is still much to be accomplished. That could be the theme of Tooele County School District Superintendent Mark Ernst’s state of the district address, delivered during the Sept. 12, 2023 Tooele County School Board meeting.
With a doctorate in education leadership and professional practice, Ernst has led the school district since November 2021 when he became the acting superintendent, before his appointment as superintendent in April 2022.
During his State of the District address, Ernst emphasized the growth of the district as the center of teaching and learning for the state’s fastest growing county.
The school district serves over 15,000 students on 27 school campuses spanning hundreds of miles and is the largest employer in the fastest-growing county in Utah, according to Ernst.
“Our growth requires us to be forward-thinking to meet the educational needs of our students,” Ernst said. “Applying lessons from the past and never forgetting the qualities that make us uniquely Tooele County, coupled with an eye for improvement, will allow us to elevate education.”
Ernst cited research that shows effective central leadership from school district offices positively affects the outcome of education in schools and classrooms.
“Research teaches us that districts generally do not see district-wide improvements in teaching and learning without substantial engagement by their central offices in helping all schools build their capacity for improvement,” he said. “Central offices and the people who work in them are not simply part of the background noise in school improvement. Rather, school district central office administrators exercise essential leadership, in partnership with school leaders, to build capacity throughout public educational systems for teaching and learning improvements.”
Ernst admitted that there is room in Tooele County School District for improvement in academic achievement.
“Our current academic achievement is not where we want it,” Ernst said. “However, we do have bright spots to build upon.”
Multiple schools in the district, across several grade levels, are at or above the state average on RISE testing (Readiness Improvement Success Empowerment), an annual assessment for students in grades 3 through 8. RISE tests students’ mastery of Utah standards in English language arts, mathematics, science, and writing.
The school district’s mean composite ACT score increased by 0.5. The state administers the ACT to all juniors as a measurement of preparedness for postsecondary education.
The school district has also seen a positive increase at multiple elementary schools in Acadience Reading and Math. The district’s early literacy plan shows growth at nearly all elementary schools.
Numerous teachers had 100% of their students show typical or better growth on pathways to progress measures.
“These academic achievements are important to recognize and celebrate; however, we are not where we want to be,” Ernst said. “It will take the collected efforts of administrators, educators, students, and parents to overcome our shortcomings and change the narrative, making Tooele County School District an academics-first district with extracurricular activities that support academics without supplanting our academic efforts.”
Along with academic success, the school district has been responding to behavioral concerns in students that mirror what other schools and society as a whole are seeing, according to Ernst.
“We are building the capacity of our school leaders in implementing the Safe and Civil Schools framework throughout our district,” he said. “The Safe and Civil Schools approach, as espoused in its programs and materials, is grounded in past and current research on effective schools, positive behavior support, school improvement, classroom management, and response to intervention.”
At the district level, each departments will annually focus on procedures and practices agreed upon as critical to providing the quality education necessary to ensure measurable
gains in student achievement, according to Ernst.
“Our yearly focus is part of a sequenced theory of action to increase student achievement adopted for district-wide implementation,” Ernst said. “We expect the district’s primary focus for each year to permeate every school and classroom.”
Being a good steward of public resources goes beyond what happens in classrooms, but also includes proper care and maintenance of the district’s physical facilities, according to Ernst.
“Over the past several years, we have done a quality job providing additional teachers for our students as enrollment increases,” Ernst said. “One area in which we must pledge to do better is in our operations department. With over 30 school campuses and other facilities, increasing our employees to maintain our buildings is paramount. … The need for specially trained individuals to care for our facilities remains high. .. Under my direction, Director Silva and his team are working with VCBO architects to develop a master facilities plan. The master plan will not only address growth and the potential for more schools, but it will also help ensure we are correctly maintaining our buildings. The master facilities plan will guide us for the next ten years and beyond.”
In the future Ernst said he expects the school district will need to bond to build new buildings as the district grows, according to Ernst.
“The voters of Tooele County have been kind to us by approving bond measures; in the future, we will once again ask for voters to approve bonds,” Ernst said. “My desire as superintendent is to bond at times and in a manner that will have a relatively small impact on the county’s citizens.”
Ernst went on to mention other areas where the school district is moving forward.
“The Tooele Education Foundation is thriving, providing services for new teachers, students, and the community,” he said. “Thank you to Keith Bird, Executive Director, for the work he and his team are doing to elevate education. Robert Curfew, Director of School and Student Safety, is ushering in a new era of cooperation between the school district and local law enforcement.”
The school district’s community partnerships and communications efforts have improved, according to Ernst.
“Our partnerships are strengthening, and the services we provide our students are increasing,” he said. “Over the past two years, our communication department has been extending its reach, engaging more stakeholders, and telling the story of the Tooele County School District. Communication Director Bret Valdez and his department are helping to make our district more accessible, more informative, and better equipped to meet the needs of the public. A new focus for this school year is how we onboard and engage with employees. Our Human Resources team, led by Director Charles Hansen, strives to make each employee know the value we place on them. Our human resources department is creating new procedures to engage and welcome our employees to the Tooele County School District. I am excited to witness our growth in this area.”
Ernst acknowledged the contribution of all district employees to accomplishing the goals of the school district.
“There are many other magnificent employees in our district,” he said. “Some are visible in schools, games, buses, and lunch rooms; others work behind the scenes with little fanfare. Regardless of how visible their job is, each works hard for the same goal: providing our students with an education and giving them the knowledge, skills, and disposition they need to succeed.”
There is power in looking at life in ten-year segments, according to Ernst.
“As we define our vision for our school district in 2033, let us not get sidetracked by items that have little to do with learner success,” Ernst said. “We must be precise in our thoughts, bold in our aspirations, and intentional with our words and actions.”