The Times-Independent

Kay reflects on 33-year career with Grand County

Retiring superintendent guided schools through coronavirus pandemic

First as a teacher, then a principal, and finally as superintendent, Taryn Kay has spent the last three decades rising through the ranks at the Grand County School District.

Taryn Kay on Feb. 7.
Photo by Sophia Fisher

Kay announced her retirement Jan. 31. Effective in July, her departure from the district will come nearly 33 years after she first stepped foot in a Grand County school.

“I always joke and say I’m the Derek Jeter of superintendents or education, because I’m a huge [New York] Yankees fan and Derek spent his whole career with the Yankees,” Kay said.

Kay started teaching fifth grade in Grand County in 1991. She grew up in Kaysville, Utah but has Moab roots: her great-grandfather Orlando Warner is the namesake of Warner Lake.

After 11 years teaching elementary and middle school, Kay took over a program for students with behavioral issues. She then became Grand County School District’s special education director before serving as the principal of Helen M. Knight Elementary and, finally, as superintendent.

As her work overseeing the district’s 1,500 students and 220 employees comes to a close, Kay reflected on guiding schools through the coronavirus, how education has changed over her tenure, and what her forecast is for Grand County’s schools in the coming years.

‘A really healthy place’ — and the pandemic

Overall, Kay said Grand County schools are “in a really healthy place” — that’s why she feels comfortable setting down the mantle.

“The district is in a really solid financial place; it’s in a really solid educational place,” she said.

Shoring up school finances has proven a huge task for Kay since she became superintendent in 2020. She adopted a district vexed by poor bookkeeping and starting to build a new middle school.

With the efforts of staff, especially now-former Business Administrator Pat Wilson, Kay can now proudly report the district’s finances are in order and the outlook is “bright.”

“It’s kind of like laundry; there’s not a point where it [the work] is done,” Kay said. “… [But] I feel like we have an excellent admin team who really work well together. We’ve established good district goals and they are working really hard to implement those.”

Kay at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Margaret L. Hopkin Middle School on April 21, 2022.
File photo

Other big pushes of Kay’s tenure include improving school attendance, supporting staff members and, of course, grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, Kay became superintendent just days before the March 2020 shutdowns — a volatile time to start any new role, let alone one in education. One of her first acts, she said, was to close schools.

“Honestly, those first nine months were a blur,” Kay said. She also spent the year caring for her spouse, Margaret Hopkin, who was grappling with cancer. Hopkin, the namesake of the new middle school, died that December.

“I just kept waking up and breathing and just dealing with whatever challenge was in front of me that day,” Kay said.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, Kay said her work was almost entirely focused on steering schools through the pandemic, navigating mask mandates and remote learning.

All the work that came next

It’s only in the last two years that Kay has been able to focus on much besides the pandemic.

“We want to provide the best education possible to our kids. How can we do that?” Kay asked rhetorically. “We want to keep them in school, we want to keep them engaged. We want to make sure that when they leave, they’re ready for college or a career.”

A big goal across all schools is to aid students who speak English as a second language. Many of the district’s students move to Moab straight from Central or South America and speak essentially no English.

“They’re really behind … just because they don’t have experience with the language,” Kay said. “Helping those students to learn the language and be successful is really our goal.”

In addition, the school district has revamped its K-12 math curriculum, which will be in place starting next year. The district is also updating its tech department, adopting a new student information system and taking strides to improve staff and teacher wellness.

“I think that a lot of times in education, staff gets lost because we focus so much on kids, and rightly so … but if our staff isn’t well then our product isn’t good,” Kay said.

She said staff burnout has metastasized since the pandemic, pointing to an ongoing truth within the school system: though the pandemic is in many ways over, it casts a long shadow over schools. Besides staff burnout, Kay said chronic student absences accelerated during the pandemic.

“Kids had a lot of time where they were not in school so they developed sort of an idea that not being in school was great,” Kay said. “That’s kind of going away over time, but getting kids’ work ethic back up has been a bit of a challenge.”

She said the pandemic also hurt some of the district’s current kindergarteners in a very specific way: loss of language development when people started donning masks.

“Having somebody watch your face as they’re learning to speak is hugely critical in the development of language,” Kay said.

She said those issues will wane as the pandemic seeps further into the past. One new educational trend isn’t going anywhere, however: technology.

“I think cell phones have really, really impacted our students,” Kay said.

While technology as a broad category can both accelerate and hinder learning, Kay said she’s concerned that children are no longer exposed to as much language as digital gadgets replace conversation.

Instant gratification is another concern.

“I’ve had a number of teachers tell me the biggest change they see in kids is they aren’t able to persevere as well,” Kay said. “If they encountered a difficult task, something they don’t understand, they’re just not able to persevere.”

At the same time, Kay said some aspects of novel technology can help teachers innovate. For example, she said the growing proficiency of artificial intelligence to ghost-write papers will make teachers revert to handwritten essays and testing through conversation.

“I’m not going to ask you to write a big paper; I’m going to see what you know,” Kay said.

How Moab, and education, have changed

Technology is one of three big changes Kay said she’s observed since joining the education field in 1991.

The other two are a greater focus on school safety and constantly increasing demands on teachers.

“The [state] Legislature is really proficient at adding things,” Kay said. “…That’s hard for teachers — I think that’s one of the biggest morale busters.”

For the most part, that’s occurred through heavier testing requirements and more curriculum interventions.

“The Legislature has been moving slowly away from … local district control to more of state control,” Kay said. “And the whole model is built on local control with local boards.”

In Moab specifically, Kay said she’s been surprised in some ways at the lack of change. The student population of the district, for example, has held around 1,400 and 1,500 her entire tenure.

However, Kay said the last two kindergarten classes have been notably smaller  — around 80 students instead of 100. She thinks the high cost of living and growing stock of second homes might be the cause.

“I’m curious to see if it’s the new norm,” Kay said.

Now that she’s retiring, Kay said she’s looking forward to remaining in the community and “doing nothing for awhile” — by which she means hiking, reading and paddleboarding. She said the school district is aiming to announce her replacement in April.

Kay thanked students, parents and the community for their ongoing support.

“I’ve been happy to go to work every day … it’s really been a gift,” she said.

Kay said she’s occasionally asked for advice as she prepares to leave. Her response? Think outside the box and be kind.

“Just because something is the way it is, the way it’s always been, doesn’t mean it’s the way it has to be,” Kay said. “And just be kind to one another. I think the world is really short on kindness right now. … If every single person just focuses on being kind, that would transform the world. It’s very simple but I truly believe it.”