At-Risk Students Get New Chance

County will operate schools

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A bamboozling could lead to an educational revolution at two Gila County alternative schools.

A slew of problems emerged in March after the former business manager of Gila County Regional School District allegedly embezzled funds and failed to ensure payment of some state and federal taxes.

County Superintendent of Schools Linda O'Dell said the Globe and Payson education centers would close at the end of last school year.

But with a new vision and new staff to implement it, O'Dell has fulfilled her promise not to abandon the county's at-risk youth.

The Globe and Payson education centers -- under the regional school district -- serve students unable to thrive in a traditional classroom setting.

Both schools will open this fall.

Former business manager, Yvette Vargas, was arrested on charges of fraudulent schemes, according to O'Dell.

"When she admitted to me that she took money out of the (district's) account, she gave me an envelope with $2,000," O'Dell said.

The missing money tipped the district into discovering some state and federal taxes had gone unpaid for several years. O'Dell said the district's finances appeared sound on paper.

According to O'Dell, Vargas told her she didn't know how to pay the taxes, which have since been paid.

The troubles contributed to O'Dell's initial decision to close the schools, as did the "political hotbed" that ensued.

Personnel issues at the Globe campus caused its administrator to resign, but O'Dell said she would have fired the person anyway.

"Globe students were not being held accountable," O'Dell said. "There was a need for greater oversight."

Difficult questions concerning O'Dell's oversight also needed answering.

"What did I miss? What didn't I do that I needed to be doing?" O'Dell said she had to ask herself. "That was a hard pill for me to swallow."

She initially announced both schools would close, but in the end, only the Globe campus closed.

O'Dell scrubbed the staff and started anew. The Payson campus was not plagued by the same problems.

Immediately after the schools closed, O'Dell said area residents and members from the law enforcement community encouraged her to re-open.

Gila County has one of the highest drop out rates in the state. The need for an alternative school was undeniable, O'Dell said.

She decided on sweeping changes to avoid future problems.

"Changing culture is difficult," she said.

A new superintendent for the regional school district will relieve O'Dell of the district's minutia. She plans to form a five-member advisory board, which will function as the regional district's governing body.

New staff at the Globe campus and a new business administrator will complete the team.

Charged with change, Dan Bradfield will serve as the Globe campus' new principal. He will also be the new superintendent for the Gila County Regional School District, a newly created position.

"We're going to be known as the explorers," he said Wednesday. "Space explorers, that is."

"We're going to do everything to take the kids out of this world because they haven't been successful in this world."

The idea behind Bradfield's non-traditional approach to education is that the absence of gravity renders all objects equal.

He wants students to feel ownership in their school and give them responsibility so they can learn how to deal with it, and build "intrinsic motivation."

"Education, in my mind, has never taught kids to think well. They know how to take orders," Bradfield said.

He plans on reward programs for reading, credit recovery and attendance, and he will also solicit community support -- not necessarily monetary --hrough a Gila County Mission Control Team to create a culture of ownership and responsibility.

"I know we're going to have doubters," Bradfield said. "Can we reach them (the students) all? Absolutely not. Can they reach them all in a traditional school? No. That's why we have these."

Bradfield's $68,000 salary will cover his duties in both positions, which O'Dell said the district has enough money to pay.

By hiring Bradfield, O'Dell can concentrate more on her duties as the county superintendent. Those include fiscal management, overseeing education for juvenile delinquents and helping to school jail inmates.

"I have a lot of confidence as we're moving forward," O'Dell said.

School starts Aug. 18.

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