Utah educators have been especially worried about equity throughout the pandemic, which they say has exposed and exacerbated long-existing disparities between students of color, those from low income backgrounds or non-native English speakers with their more privileged peers.

To help those students as schools reopen, the United Way of Salt Lake and Promise Partnership launched a competition for new and innovative ideas, announcing the winning teams Tuesday.

“Our real focus here is to reach those families and students that have been the most disconnected since COVID began,” said Amy Terpstra, vice president of collective impact partnerships at United Way. “We’ve heard that an alarmingly large share of students often weren’t connected with their teachers and we would like to do what we can to help [educators] get reconnected with those families and give them the support they need.”

The competition was open to teams of teachers and staff from six districts along the Wasatch Front, plus Park City. Thirty schools submitted proposals, though only six were selected.

The winners came from three schools in the Granite District, two in Salt Lake and one in Davis, each getting $50,000 to put their plans into action.

Hillside Elementary (Granite School District)

Principal Pauline Longberg said her school’s plan is focused primarily on building partnerships with families. It will start with voluntary home visits — or other forms of personalized meetings — to help connect teachers and families. The first visit will allow families to talk about goals for their kids, while later meetings will address specific learning needs students have.

Longberg said the plan will also work to create a set of clear guidelines for what students should know by the end of each grade level. Teams of teachers will identify the most essential academic proficiency expectations in language arts and math, communicate them clearly to students and teach families what they can do at home to support them.

“I think before COVID hit, having quality instruction was the most important thing,” she said. “But now in this new era that we live in, being safe at school and making sure our families are partners with us is absolutely essential. Then we can focus on having good instruction.”

North Davis Junior High (Davis School District)

North Davis’s plan will focus on regular mentoring sessions for every student in the school.

Assistant Principal Stacey Jackson said because many students did not show up regularly to virtual meetings with teachers and their grades suffered during last school year’s closure, faculty and administrators wanted to help personalize education for each student.

Each student will be assigned a teacher mentor and report to them every day for 30 minutes. The regular school schedule will be adjusted to allow that to happen. In the sessions, students will set individual goals for themselves and teachers will review the students’ work.

Mentors will also work with counselors and administrators to provide food pantry packets, homeless resources, mental health support or additional tutoring for any student in need. Monthly student surveys will be taken to collect data on the program and gauge its success.

“Ultimately, we want each student to have a faculty advocate and coach who knows their needs and can act as a liaison for their guardian to the school,” Jackson said. “We’re excited not only to be able to coach our students in acquiring habits of success, but help them realize their life goals and help them see a path in achieving those goals.”

Bryant Middle School/Salt Lake Center for Science Education (Salt Lake City School District)

Bryant/SLCSE is looking at leveling the playing field for students. The school has already gotten rid of a “gifted and talented” track for its students, and is extending that policy to its feeder elementary school. Assistant Principal Britnie Powell said that will help to create a more inclusive experience for students early on.

She said students who start out on a “gifted” or “talented” track tend to stay on that path through high school, enrolling in honors and AP classes. Likewise, for those who don’t, it can become much more difficult for them to start taking more rigorous classes later on. By clearing that pathway early, Powell said it can keep students on a more even trajectory.

Teachers will also team up to work with a small group of students and assign mentors to every student. Powell said that will help faculty identify students who are struggling and keep them on track.

“The idea is that you are doing different things to help push students in order to advance their learning, whatever levels they’re at,” she said. “Some students, you have to build particular scaffolds in order to help them develop the skills or content that they need in order to access that rigorous curriculum.”

Granite Park Junior High (Granite School District)

Granite Park’s plan is centered around redesigning discipline at the school, shifting the focus from seeing a student’s behavior as simply acting out, to looking at it as a communication of something they need and figuring out how to provide it.

Math Teacher Cindi Dunford said the approach is called positive discipline.

“It uses strategies to help validate feelings of the students,” Dunford said. “And to also give them choice within the framework of what they can do to try and direct their behavior in a more productive way.”

She said a big part of that involves ongoing training for teachers and parents, which the school will help provide. It will involve some in-house training, but Dunford said teachers will have a say in how they want to learn.

East High School (Salt Lake School District)

Similar to Bryant/SLCSE, East High is planning on simplifying the courses they offer, enrolling all incoming freshmen in the same Pre-AP English 1 and AP Geography classes. Literacy coach Katie Nitka said that will help foster a culture of high expectations for all students while giving them a more integrated high school experience.

It will also allow the school to see what skills and content are most important for students to end the year with.

Nitka said their plan will take a few years to take shape, as it will also involve the same kind of adjustments for higher grade levels. And as most of the teachers at the school are white, the plan will also involve ongoing teacher education, including expanding a teacher-led book club.

“Putting a bunch of kids in the same classroom doesn’t mean anything if we’re not extending the learning to our teachers,” she said. “Our demographic doesn’t reflect the diversity and inclusivity that we’re looking for, so [it’s] really being conscious of how we train a building of [mostly] white educators to be truly culturally responsive and anti-racist.”

James Moss Elementary (Granite School District)

The plan from Moss Elementary is designed to bring teaching and various support systems to the most marginalized students. Assistant Principal Sabrina Felsted said the school is diverse, with about 52 countries and 47 languages represented, which presents lots of communication challenges for staff and parents.

She said the school will designate a network specialist, who will make time for families to call in and voice any concerns they have or get help. It will also set up what she called a “language phone tree,” to connect non-English speakers with other parents who can translate.

The school will also provide learning opportunities — like additional English classes — outside of regular school hours, and embed teachers and paraprofessionals in other out-of-school programs.