Is it in the DNA? Or is it just a lot of hard work? Perhaps it's a mix of both for Canyons District’s Cheng family, who can now boast two General Scholar winners at the annual Sterling Scholar competition.
On Friday, March 15, 2019, Alexander Cheng, a senior at Hillcrest who has been accepted to Stanford, was named the winner of the Science category before being announced as the overall winner of the 57th annual competition that singles out the best and brightest in the state.
In 2016, Alexander’s brother, Anthony, also was given the top award in the prestigious competition sponsored by the Deseret News and KSL-TV. For his achievements in the prestigious competition, Alexander Cheng ended the night with a $2,500 check as the Science Sterling Scholar and an additional $2,500 for being named General Scholar.
This is just the latest in a string of big accomplishments for Alexander Cheng, the top student in Hillcrest’s Class of 2019 and one of 80 students worldwide selected to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Research Science Institute.
Cheng was recently selected as a Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar and a regional finalist in the national Coca-Cola scholarship. Last week, he also learned he won first place in the Materials and Biomedical category at the University of Utah’s Science and Engineering Fair for his entry, “Determining the Role of Microvascular Pathology as Reflected by Changes in Primary and Secondary Retinal Vessels in the Pathophysiology of Diabetic Complications.”
"It's truly an honor to even be here so I'm truly blessed to have won and to be recognized. I'm so grateful, especially to my parents for all of their support and help,” Alexander Cheng told the Deseret News. “I think they're really crucial. My brother actually won General Sterling Scholar three years ago. It just goes to show the dedication and the influence they've had on us so I really thank my parents.”
In the 2019 Sterling Scholar competition, 13 students from Canyons District high schools advanced to the final round of competition in 14 categories. Seven of those students were named runners up in their respective categories.
From Alta High, Christian Affleck was a runner-up in the Vocal Performance category and Avery Gunnel was one of the top three students in the Instrumental Music category. Brighton High’s Caroline Jarman was a runner-up in Computer Technology, and Hillcrest’s Alan Zhao, Ashley Howell, and Alana Liu were runners-up in the Math, Skilled and Technical Sciences, and Visual Arts categories, respectively.
Canyons District continues to be recognized for its fiscal transparency. For the 10th year running, the District has received a Certificate in Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO).
The award is given to districts that uphold the highest standards for financial reporting and accountability as exemplified by their Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).
School business officials are responsible for ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that the district budget reflects educational priorities and student needs, says ASBO International Director of Recognition Programs Molly Barrie. “The CAFR informs parents and other stakeholders about the financial and economic state of the district, making it an important communications tool for building trust and engaging with the school community.”
Canyons, under the leadership of Business Administrator Leon Wilcox, also routinely earns the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association. The Distinguished Budget Presentation Award is the association’s highest award in government budgeting. It recognizes Canyons’ budget as an outstanding policy document, financial plan, operations guide, and communications device.
Canyons also has maintained a sterling AAA-bond rating, which has a bearing on the District’s ability to affordably bond to pay for upgrades to aging school buildings. A high rating is like having perfect credit, which translates to low interest rates and millions in savings to taxpayers.
It never fails. Each spring, with the arrival of the first crocus blooms to emerge from the cool, rain-soaked ground, comes end-of-year testing season in Utah’s schools.
Only this season, students will be taking a new set of Utah State Board of Education-required assessments to demonstrate how much they have learned over the course of the year. The exam for students in grades 3-8 is called RISE, an acronym that stands for Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment. The computer adaptive assessment adapts to an examinee’s abilities by proposing harder questions when a student gets something correct, and easier questions when the student gives a wrong answer. Ninth- through 10th-grade students will participate in a high school assessment called Utah Aspire Plus, which is designed to prepare them for the ACT, the most commonly used college-entrance exam.
“Students and teachers will find the tests, the questions, and their design very familiar,” says CSD Research and Assessment Director Dr. Hal Sanderson.
Why do schools test? What do the results mean, and why should students and parents care?
Answers to these questions and more can be found on a new Canyons District resources page. Anyone curious about the how’s and why’s of testing is encouraged to browse the site, which contains teacher testimonials, testing tips, links to sample test questions, and more. The Utah State Board of Education also has created some online brochures describing Utah’s RISE and Aspire Plus exams.
“Testing has always been integral to education. Assessments inform instruction by helping teachers know if educational goals are being met,” explains Sanderson. “They’re an indicator of what’s working in the classroom and what can be done differently. Testing also gives parents a measure of their child’s learning, which, along with grades and other measures, helps answer the question: Is my child reaching expected learning targets and doing well compared to his or her peers?”
But did you also know that a student’s performance on RISE in middle school can predict how well he or she will do on the ACT college entrance exam in high school? RISE, in other words, gives middle schoolers a glimpse at how they’ll do on a high-stakes test in a low-stakes environment when they still have time to go back and re-learn foundational concepts.
Another surprising fact: Very little of the school year is devoted to test-taking. An internal audit performed last year revealed that Canyons District students spend just 1.2 percent to 2.7 percent of instruction time taking state and district assessments. By comparison, at one sampled Canyons District elementary school, recess accounted for 4.5 percent of the year, 12 percent was devoted to lunch and math instruction occupied 27.3 percent of the year. The full report is available online.
As Mount Jordan Middle teacher Kory Crockett explains: “We all know that tests can be stressful. Tests can be hard. But it’s really these hard things in life that help us grow the most. And especially with these end-of-the year tests, they don’t just tell us how much we’ve grown, they tell us how much we’ve grown as a school.”
Most teachers go into education to make a difference. But nowhere is that difference as readily apparent than in special education, believes Stacey Nofsinger.
“There is nothing better than seeing your student finally grasp a concept that maybe you were working on for six weeks or six months. …to finally see them say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what you meant?’” says the teaching specialist. “It’s very exciting to be part of that educational journey for kids.”
Is it a tough job? It can be, admits Nofsinger noting how it requires you to be adept at planning, writing goals, developing interventions, and meeting timelines. But she says, the rewards far outweigh the demands—especially considering the financial incentives that Canyons District now makes available.
Last year, 130 of CSD’s teachers with a bachelor’s or advanced degree in special education qualified for legislatively-approved $4,100 stipends through the Utah State Board of Education. Additionally, 62 CSD teachers in self-contained classrooms received District-funded stipends of $3,000 for undergoing special training.
In all, these teachers benefitted to the tune of about $720,000. And that comes on top of two consecutive years of sizeable teacher pay increases approved by the Canyons Board of Education, says CSD’s Special Education Director Misty Suarez. “These stipends aren’t just a one-time deal. Qualified teachers are eligible to receive them every year, which has given us a real recruiting edge. I can’t think of a better time to consider a career in special education.”
February and March mark the start of the hiring season for Utah’s public schools, and Canyons District has plenty of special ed job openings, including about half-a-dozen full-time teaching positions, and more than a dozen full-time or part-time paraeducator positions.
The Office of Special Education & Related Services also has positions open for instructional coaches, specialists, and speech-language pathologists, which means there’s plenty of opportunity for advancement.
For Nofsinger, the job is more of a calling than a career, and she now delights in supporting others who have chosen the same path. The New York native chose Utah’s Canyons School District because of the District’s investment in teacher supports, such as the coaching she now provides.
“As a teacher, we still need to keep learning for our students and to implement our own best practices,” says Nofsinger, a New York native who chose Utah’s Canyons District for its investment in teacher supports, such as the coaching she now provides. “Canyons District’s philosophy in making sure their teachers are modeling that and continuing their own education and getting that professional development on a regular basis really spoke to my own philosophies in education.”
Talk about having the world at your feet. The Brighton Bengals’ Model United Nations Team, long-ranked as one of the best in the country, took first place as a distinguished delegation in Research and Preparation at the 2019 National High School Model United Nations conference in New York City.
Brighton High was the only Utah school to compete in the mock proceedings of the United Nations (UN). Student delegates were assigned a country to represent in one of the UN’s numerous committees with pre-set topics to debate. They researched the background of their country, their country's position on the topics at hand, and prepared notes on possible solutions to the problems faced. Students then convened in the General Assembly to debate with the other UN member states, represented by 3,500 students from 30 countries.
Much like the real UN, the goal is to identify creative solutions to vexing foreign relations problems. In doing so the students flex their academic skills, and practice patience and persistence. They learn to speak well, but also to listen.
As former United-Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once explained to conference participants, the experience trains students to be open-minded and flexible. “To analyze all the positions, even those you oppose. To propose constructive solutions that will benefit all parties. Developing these diplomatic skills will help you as you prepare for leadership in the future. Such skills have never been more important.”
Next up for the Bengals: The Model UN Team will be competing at the state conference on April 16 where the team has a good chance of earning another first-place trophy, says their advisor Jim Hodges.