PROVO — Patti Harrington couldn't hold back tears as she read the results of the year-end exams taken by students in Provo City School District.
Harrington, Provo's assistant superintendent who oversees how and what children learn in classrooms, was more-than-pleasantly surprised at the marks, especially in reading and writing.
A year after Provo received $150,000 in one-time funds — made available by a bill approved by the 1999 Legislature that gave $5 million to Utah schools for literacy efforts — students in all elementary grades improved their scores on the language-arts section of a test of core subjects.
And a separate reading test shows that the number of children in first through sixth grades who cannot read at grade level dropped from 21 percent in 1999 to 16 percent of students in 2000. Two elementary schools, Rock Canyon and Westridge, also didn't have a single child in the second grade that scored below grade level on the literacy test.
"I apologize for choking up," Harrington says, pausing for a moment while discussing the new scores. "It's just that if kids can read, then they can get their lives back."
On the core test, only third- and seventh-graders scored lower than last year's figures, with an average of 83 percent and 48 percent, respectively, in grade-level mathematics.
Scores also dipped a few percentage points from last year for junior high and middle school students in geometry and algebra.
Students also struggled slightly with science classes, averaging 60 percent in Earth systems, 63 percent in human biology and 59 percent in physics, all just a few percentage points below last year's scores.
Despite drops in some areas, Mossi White, school board president, called the score results an "early Christmas." White is among those at the district who attributes the rise in scores to "Standards and Benchmarks," a program Harrington designed that requires students to prove competency at each grade before advancing levels.
Provo, which struggles to meet the needs of a growing number of students who hail from Spanish-speaking and working-poor families, says the standards program is unique among the state's 40 districts.
Only four Provo schools that have federal grants to support the program have adopted "Standards and Benchmarks" in full, but all teachers have been trained and have been told where each student should be academically at the end of each grade.
Provo also is giving credit to a volunteer effort that was started after a proposed $2.2 million levy was soundly defeated by voters May 1999. The money would have paid for extra teachers, tutors and transportation called for under the standards-based learning plan.
The levy was turned down largely because a parent group campaigned against the tax increase, saying that dedicated parents could help in classrooms as well as paid aides.
Provo spent $60,000 to start the "Lights for Learning" volunteer initiative. A part-time coordinator was given $20,000, and $40,000 was spread among Provo's schools to train and support volunteers.
Now, 385 volunteers spend 1,209 hours per week in the schools, mostly tutoring in math and reading classes. Some 325 are volunteers who stepped forward in 1999-2000.
In monetary terms, if each new volunteer was paid minimum wage for three hours spent in the classroom each week, the district would have spent $186,516 for the past 36 weeks.
"We're just gaining momentum and going forward," Harrington said. "We'd like to multiply these numbers over the next year."