In an era of educational uncertainty, caused by a state legislature that's never made a strong commitment to children and a new president who wants to create a school voucher system, the Payson School District is pushing forward.
The most reassuring development during the past year, Payson School Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said, is the district's continuing improvement in student test scores.
"Overall we are near the 60th percentile," he said, "and our latest ACT (college placement test) scores actually went up to the 63rd percentile. They've been continuing upward for the last three years."
Percentiles are determined by taking all the scores on a particular test and breaking them down into 99 equal groups, Weissenfels said. The top group is the 99th percentile, and the lowest group is the first percentile, with the 50th percentile considered average.
"To be in the 63rd percentile means that our students scored better than 62 percent of the students in the nation," he said.
Weissenfels said he also is proud of the community's commitment to education, which is reflected in the Credit for Kids donations the district received in 2000.
For the third consecutive year, Rim country residents donated more than $140,000 to Payson schools for extracurricular activities through the state's tax-credit program. Per capita, Payson is among the 10 most generous communities in the state when it comes to the Credit for Kids program, which allows taxpayers to donate up to $200 to public schools in exchange for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.
The money is used to fund sports, music, art and drama programs. The district has used the money to build a mini-theater at the high school and to buy such things as band instruments for the middle school.
The district is currently using Credit for Kids donations to install an all-weather track and build additional bleachers at Longhorn Stadium on the high school campus.
"We have enough to finish the all-weather track as soon as school is out," Weissenfels said in March. "We've already added additional rest rooms, so phase one will then be finished."
The next step in the stadium project is to build a retaining wall between the field, and the athletic dome, move the bleachers to the south side of the field and build a new set of bleachers on the north side.
"That's going to cost another $100,000 and will probably take us a little while to get accomplished," the superintendent said.
Vouching for education
Overall, Weissenfels said, the district is doing as well as it can considering the uncertainties in public education that exist at the state and national levels.
"I disagree with President Bush's voucher plan," he said.
The plan would allow parents to use vouchers to pay for private schools if their child's public school is deemed to be failing.
"My problem is that every definition our state comes up with for a failing school is totally bogus and absolutely absurd," Weissenfels said.
To be classified as a failing school in Arizona, Weissenfels said, test scores simply have to stay the same or drop, no matter how high the test scores were to begin with.
"The way not to be a failing school is to keep improving," the superintendent said. "That's easy for a school at the 10th percentile, but more difficult for schools like ours that are above the 60th percentile. If that school at the 10th percentile goes up to the 11th, it's not failing, but if one of our schools, say, stays at the 62nd percentile, it is considered a failing school."
Looking to the year ahead, Weissenfels said he hopes Payson's student enrollment, which dropped by 51 students in the 2000-2001 school year, levels off. The decline was the first student-enrollment dip the district has had in the 12 years for which statistics are available.
The state funds school districts based on a $3,400-per-student formula, and the loss of 51 students put a $170,000 crimp in the district's spending budget.
Nevertheless, Weissenfels said, the district is in good position for the future.
Educators are discovering more about how the mind learns, he said, and are adapting that knowledge to teaching concepts.
"We're realizing we all still have the same needs: to read, write and compute. If you can really do those three things, you can do anything."
"If you can compute, you can function in a world of numbers virtually anywhere. If you can write you can communicate with others.
"What else do you really have to do?
"All the talk about why kids can't read and write is nonsense," Weissenfels said. "They read and write far better than they did 25 years ago."
The challenge, he said, is that today there is so much more information to be assimilated.
"When they say today's kids are less capable, I have to disagree," he said. "I think they are more capable than we ever dreamed possible."