How One Utah School Perseveres Through Challenges to Achieve Statewide Success

At Farmington High School, students, teachers, and parents know what it’s like to persevere through the unfamiliar and work together to achieve success. And their hard work has paid off. 

In less than two years, they went from opening the school to posting one of the highest composite ACT scores in the state of Utah.

The school opened at the start of the 2018-2019 school year in Farmington, Utah, with an emphasis on technology and an innovative, mastery-based approach to learning. Teachers tailor instruction to the needs of their students and provide personalized opportunities for growth. Students progress at their own pace with rigorous instruction that helps develop the skills needed to succeed in college and in life.

The model was the first of its kind in the state, and no one knew how it would unfold in a new school. But the results soon showed that the learning environment was working for their students.

In the school’s first year, juniors posted the highest composite ACT score (22.2 on a 36-point scale) of any high school in the state’s second-largest district. A year later, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Farmington juniors improved and posted a composite score of 22.8. Utah’s statewide composite score of 20.2 in 2020 was the highest among the 15 states that test all students.

Farmington Principal Richard Swanson credited the Summit Learning program’s curriculum and its emphasis on critical thinking and self-direction, which gave students the skills to improve their performance after taking a practice test earlier in the year. 

Members of the Class of 2019 said the program’s approach also helped prepare them for college. 

“It’s kind of a good transition into college — self-discipline and learning how to do things on your own, whereas other schools don’t really have that yet,” student Brandon Russon told the Standard-Examiner in May 2019.  

When the school was disrupted by COVID-19 in March 2020, these foundational skills helped students navigate the unprecedented change. In addition, Summit Learning provided teachers with a central place to share digital learning resources and connect with students.

“Students knew exactly what they were going to be working on for the remainder of the year versus other schools that had to scramble and put things together,” Farmington Assistant Principal Justin Whittaker said. “They were still setting goals. They’re meeting weekly with their mentor. They have one-on-one virtual check-ins. And so, although the setting was different, the structure remained the same.”

Mentoring check-ins helped keep students connected to their teachers and peers, and ensured that they continued to engage in learning. Farmington educators also prioritized individual outreach through phone calls to students struggling to stay connected to school. 

“Without that structure and without that system in place, hundreds of kids would have fallen through the cracks,” Whittaker said.

Although the Farmington community adapted quickly, the pandemic and the closure of the school created challenges for educators, students, and families. Teachers worked tirelessly to support students, answering emails and approving assessments at all hours. A significant number of students took jobs to help support their families. With less time for learning, some students fell behind and did not complete their classes before the end of the school year. 

In a mastery-based system, however, demonstrating proficiency is the goal, not adhering to a set schedule. So Farmington school leaders launched a summer school program that allowed students who had fallen behind a chance to catch up. Each student continued to have a mentor, and teachers provided feedback and support to complete assignments. During the summer program, students completed hundreds of credits, ensuring that they would be ready for the start of school in the fall. 

With all of the disruptions during the past year, school leaders again wondered how students would perform on the annual ACT college admissions exam. When the results came in, Farmington juniors scored higher than the previous year and again improved significantly from a practice test. 

Farmington’s success comes from a school community that is united around a vision for purposeful, personalized, and preparatory education. As Swanson and Assistant Principal Merci Rossmango put it in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed: “Our experience has taught us the importance of breaking away from the idea that a one-size-fits-all teaching style will help all students. … By adopting the right approach, educators can have the information and tools they need to meet the unique needs of each individual student.”

This year, that vision was more important than ever. 

“One of our theme words for this year is perseverance,” Rossmango said. “I mean, it took a lot, and I think that it was good for all of us to remember that it’s about the students.” 

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.