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Utah District Takes Rare Chance To Start Anew

I recently traveled to suburban Salt Lake City to write about something rather unusual in public education: the start of a new school district.

The Canyons School district was formed out of a bitter struggle that included state legislation, a voter referendum, and a federal lawsuit that wasn't completely settled until more than 6 months after the district started operating.

I spent the better part of a week traversing the region with the energetic superintendent, David Doty.

The Canyons School District officially opened its doors on July 1, and Doty and his team have not only tackled the challenges of getting the trains running on time, but also academic reform. The school board approved a differentiated diploma, making middle schools grades 6-8 and high schools grades 9-12, and converted some year-round schools to a formal schedule.

MIndful that the condition of the school buildings was a chief reason citizens voted for a new district, Canyons officials got a $250 million bond issue on the June 22 ballot and will have conducted about five dozen community meetings before next month.

We often hear in education that people wish they could wave their magic wands and start over. And while many elements are the same in Canyons as they were the year before—the majority of teachers and principals are in the same spots—the district has sought to create its own culture, with Doty hoping the "esprit de corps" that has been built in central office will translate to the school level, building a collaborative district where shared leadership is valued.

A tall order, perhaps.

But it's a vision Canyons officials are trying to stay true to. The district's payroll system, for example, was built based on the feedback of schools, who found the system used by the previous district to be cumbersome, said Mary Bailey, the district's executive director in charge of high schools.

"We intervened (with other central office staffers) and said the most important thing here is not what you think is efficient but what the schools find comfortable. They deal with the kids everyday. We can adjust to a different system," she said.

It's not perfect, for sure. There's a lot of pain that remains in the community. Many of the district's employees have spent more than two decades working with people who are now walled off in another district, and they told me they miss their old colleagues and are frustrated by the political strife that has made communication between the two districts difficult at times.

As you will hear in the video, Doty has used Twitter, Facebook and other venues to communicate with the public at large. In fact, I first learned about Canyons last summer because of his tweeting. (And how many superintendents do you know: a) use Twitter and b) have sent tweets to a teen pop star?)

To hear more of Doty's thoughts on the past year and his leadership philosophy, check out the interview below:

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