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Coffins and competitions: Building unity, attendance at West High

SALT LAKE CITY — Dangling from the walls and ceiling of West High School's fourth floor, handmade zombies, mummies, werewolves and vampire coffins inscribed with teachers' last names exude an atmosphere akin to the Halloween season.

Meanwhile, a voice over the school PA system gives a daily recap of points earned by each class in contests of dodge ball, lip-syncing, dress and dance.

But student leaders and teachers this week have two somewhat unexpected purposes in mind for the eerie props and raucous activities: school spirit and classroom attendance.

"It's kind of a cool paradox," Student Body President Trent Perry said of the five-day Spirit Week event. "By competing against each other, everybody kind of gets more school spirit."

Spirit Week takes place at unique times in high schools across the country, often with ties to student-centered causes, such as anti-bullying or drug abuse prevention.

West High School is one of the most diverse schools in the state, with two-thirds of its 2,400 students being of an ethnic minority. Almost the same portion of students come from low-income families, and many are learning English as a second language, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

In light of growing diversity and a new tardy policy for students at West High, students hope this year's Spirit Week will lead to even greater unity, school spirit and classroom participation.

The activities, based on a theme of "Nightmare on 3rd West," will all culminate in a schoolwide assembly Friday. But students must be on time to class each day to participate.

"I would say the attendance is up," said Teri King, an American history teacher and student government adviser. "It becomes an added incentive to behave themselves, to go to class. They don't want to miss it."

In some ways, that goal was realized before this week's festivities began. Building numerous large props takes collaborative creativity. Coordinating out-of-class activities requires leadership. Students are even staying home from family vacations to be in school this week.

"The thing that I think is most impressive about this kind of stuff is the learning opportunity, problem-solving, the teamwork, the cooperation, the trial and error," King said. "It might not be a paper they're writing. It might not be a test that they're successful on. But it's learning in a whole different way. This is education the way it should be."

It's a process that's not always easy for such a large group of teens where more than 50 languages are spoken. Challenges inherent to diversity and poverty can carry over to academic and extracurricular realms, according to Perry.

Still, the school's graduation rate of 80 percent last year exceeded the district average by 6 percent. Student proficiency rates in 2015 rose by more than 10 percent in some subjects from the year before.

It all starts with making strengths out of what some would view as disadvantages, Perry said. That's how Spirit Week works at Salt Lake City's downtown high school.

"Whenever you ask somebody what their favorite thing about West High is, it's most likely going to be the diversity," he said. "A lot of people view that as a negative thing. It can create conflict in a school. But here, we use it to our advantage."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen