It was a beginning begat by disappointment — and then Julia Randall Elementary’s current incarnation was born. Like the impeccably-bred bulldog mascot, we can reveal the school’s family line, but luck always plays a role. The school has become one of the best in Gila County, judging by state standards, after years of mediocrity peppered by triumph and occasional awards.
Six principals in 15 years rotated in and out of the school, which some staff say used to be called the “redheaded stepchild.”
Julia Randall was the first school built in Payson. Its history contributes to the intangible allure that staff speaks of, but that feeling isn’t immediately palpable to outsiders. Ground broke on new elementary schools in the district, and parents fought for their children to attend the newest and shiniest campuses with the best resources, staff say. Any place but that old Julia Randall with its dark hallways and dreary decor.
We can only know triumph by comparing it to struggle; the bulldog’s scrunched face makes you appreciate its sweet demeanor — comparatively speaking. And like a dog learning a new trick, the Julia Randall Bulldogs never stopped trying for the bone.
Once labeled “underperforming” by the state, the school has achieved that same harsh master’s most illustrious label — “excelling.”
Julia Randall has placed among the 6 percent of excelling Arizona schools for two years. No other Payson school has ever boasted the label. In fact, just one other Gila County school shares it — Las Lomas Elementary School in Claypool.
The state labels derive from the education accountability system Arizona Learns, and they reflect a school’s performance on things like standardized test scores, how the school measures against federal standards and students’ academic progress from one grade to the next.
To excel, Principal Rob Varner has worked with staff to implement pull-out reading groups for both challenged and gifted children, focused on writing skills to dramatically improve test scores, and found time for teachers to meet weekly and collaborate.
The school also has the longest-running elementary-level Parent Teacher Organization — Frontier is working to start one and Payson Elementary’s began in October. The award-winning physical education program works students’ muscles while developing their character.
To build community, Varner also pushed for a social committee. The group organizes potlucks and other social gatherings. The committees, along with avid communication, seemingly enhance the village-feeling at Julia Randall, with intense involvement of parents and teachers in children’s lives.
“The kids here — I don’t want to use the word spoiled — but they know they’re loved and cared for,” Varner said.
A new era
Varner took the helm in 2006 after the school board, in a controversial move, declined to renew then-principal Peggy Miles’ contract. She had served as principal for two years, and begun the school’s ascent to greatness.
Protests and calls to recall school board members marked the transition, but Varner said he was unaware of the situation when he accepted the job.
By 2006, the school’s academic standing had already improved from the 2000-01 school year when it barely met state standards. For the 2005-06 school year, the school ranked “highly performing,” before it reached “excelling” the next year.
Last school year, fifth-grade students received the highest math scores since 2000, with 93 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards, compared to the 45 percent in the spring of 2002.
However, the writing scores saw the most dramatic improvements. Just 49 percent of fifth-graders met writing standards in 2006. The next year, that percentage rose to 83, although 2008 saw a slight decline to 76 percent.
While numerous measures, including the culture of collaboration, have aided the school’s improvement, Varner is wary to exclude anything.
“If you say give me one thing that makes you so successful, well I can’t,” he said.
If anything, staff say they have always been tight-knit. They bonded and survived in spite of some past “dud” administrators.
Varner said, “I think I just took advantage of where there were strengths and gave them direction.” Julia Randall teachers have always been professionals, have always arrived for each day with dedication and passion.
However, two things happened almost immediately after the new principal moved into the front office.
“The first thing I did when I got here was order 500 draft books,” for writing, Varner said. He deemed writing scores of such great concern that he hired a consultant from the Valley to teach teachers how to teach writing.
Teachers can instruct students to start with a capital letter and end with a period. “It’s so much more than that,” Varner said. Good writing needs enlivening detail, logical organization and appropriate word choice.
He directed teachers to have students write for 30 minutes each day. The span of time could seem endless, but the practice elicited vast improvement, especially in kindergarten, through the school year. “When you show parents (journals), their jaws drop,” Varner said.
Secondly, he forced, at first, teachers to meet once a week during preparation periods. The seemingly simple notion proved groundbreaking, and teachers generally list the joint planning periods as a major contributing factor to Julia Randall’s excellence. It allows them to divvy tasks, which equates to less grunt work and more time for teaching. It motivates them to create innovative lesson plans, and enhances the culture of collaboration, solidifies the family.
“In the beginning, it was like pulling teeth; but now it’s like if I touch it, they’ll kill me,” Varner said.
He organized teachers’ schedules so that students of the same grade level attended music and physical education back to back. As a consequence, grade-level teachers have one hour each week to meet with each other and discuss lesson plans, activities and methods of teaching. A solitary endeavor turns into a fun, collaborative effort.
“Other schools that I’ve worked at, I didn’t even know my colleagues that well,” said kindergarten teacher LynnDee Carpenter. At Julia Randall, “we’ve gotten to know each other. We’re colleagues and we’re friends.”
Teachers are tight — several ate oranges and shared bread during lunch on a recent January day. They laugh and joke as Varner walks in the room. He is one of them.
“I don’t believe in a hierarchy,” he said. “My classified (staff) and custodian are as important to the school as I am.”
Principals are, of course, leaders, but the best leaders are perhaps those who impassion others, hire good people, and then give them freedom.
One Friday morning in December, kindergarten teachers sat in kindergarten-sized chairs around similarly sized tables, debating the best way to tackle an upcoming class cookie party.
“Something simple,” recommended teacher Todd Police.
“How about two dozen?” suggested teacher Laura Hacker. Twenty-five cookies means parents will worry about baking the extra cookie, she added.
“I was thinking I could have that extra cookie,” said Police.
Next, teachers sought simple solutions for providing milk.
“I can even ask the cafeteria about milk,” Police said. That way, it would already be in cartons. Hacker and Carpenter vigorously agreed — no mess, no fuss, no need for pouring.
Teachers divide duties as well. “Did you guys get the journals?” Police asked. “I ordered them for everybody.”
Teachers went on to discuss which games and activities they should give their classes.
The meetings make teachers feel part of a team, and even part of a family. Those warm, fuzzy feelings can motivate employees toward their best work.
Hacker said she used to work in a city school. “I felt isolated,” she said. With the weekly meetings, teachers bounce ideas and move beyond rote impulse in developing lesson plans.
Teachers take risks
Varner encourages risk-taking, even if it occasionally invokes mock regret — especially with the “young and aggressive” third-grade teachers.
“I have to reign them in once in awhile because they want to do really bizarre things,” Varner said.
The third-grade teachers seem to enjoy this characterization, and mention one class where students blew into soap through a straw to learn about bubbles. “He’s just always like, ‘These guys are crazy,’” said third-grade teacher Shelli Creighton.
“We’re probably the biggest risk-takers at the school,” said third-grade teacher Stacey Summers. The teachers do not sit behind their desks and lecture. “This is the only time we get to sit down all day,” Summers adds.
“We want the kids to say I love school,” said Creighton. “I don’t want them to think of learning as work.” For example, the bubble lesson. “All of a sudden,” Creighton said, “bubbles are cool.”
“A child — anyone — will retain something better if they do it,” she adds. Third-grade teachers teach compound words by cutting words up and pasting them together.
“We take risks. You have to take risks in teaching,” Creighton said. “Your first goal is to cover all the state standards. How we get there, that’s the adventure.”
During meetings, teachers also compare test scores and ask those with high scores in particular areas how they achieved them. The comparison can evoke feelings of inferiority. Teachers must admit their vulnerability, but the exercise contributes greatly to student achievement, teachers say.
“You try your best and you want to succeed, and you want to make sure your children are getting it,” said Hacker. “We’re all here for the same reason.”
While caring and effective teachers impact a child’s education, educators say parent involvement is crucial for academic success.
Susi Carr, the president of Julia Randall’s Parent Teacher Organization, said she has 15 or so active volunteers with a total of 80 on her list.
Varner said anywhere from six to 12 parents circulate through the school every day, helping with everything from assisting teachers to making photocopies.
Mom Stacy North helps give spelling tests. “I like to be involved,” she said.
Julia Randall does face challenges. It counts a higher percentage than district average of students on free and reduced lunch, with 53 percent of students enrolled in the program as of October 2008, compared to the districtwide total of 46 percent.
The school is also the only elementary school with self-contained special education children, which means the child spends the entire day accompanied by an aide. The number of students fluctuates, but is now roughly 12.
Although Julia Randall students cause their share of mischief, Varner says he gets more hugs each day than office visits from troublemakers. Roughly 40 students have gotten the dreaded call to the principal’s office since August, but “I get probably 40 to 60 hugs a day.”
Teachers are encouraged to deal with most discipline problems. “I want to be the hammer,” Varner said. “I’ll talk to parents about behaviors and they take care of business,” he added. “We have some drama, but our drama stays in the house, you know what I’m saying?”
In fact, when Varner walks into the cafeteria, kids immediately approach him. “Hi Mr. Varner,” says one, and another high-fives his hand shortly after.
Creighton said many of her students call her mom. “Teaching is just like parenting,” she said. Both involve imbedding lessons of respect and independence.
To develop relationships, the third-grade teachers write notes to students in their journals. If a child details a weekend sledding trip, a teacher might jot her affinity for sledding in the margin before returning the journal. The notation helps children realize that teachers are people too, Creighton and Summers said.
And as parents both encourage and reprimand, so do teachers.
“It’s not mom’s fault you forgot your backpack at home,” Summers said she tells students. “When you say I’m disappointed in you, that really hits them.”
Creighton added, “I wouldn’t say that we’re strict, but I would say we have high expectations.”
Even when parents are involved, children err. Carr said, “My kids are far from perfect. They’ve been in the principal’s office and I’ve gotten phone calls.” Carr said it’s important to talk to children about choices and consequences, that teaching kids how to make decisions is as important as knowing wrong from right.
Parents can potentially receive a letter each week from their child’s teacher, but also a monthly summation from the school’s Learning at Home Committee. The flow of communication between parents and teachers continues whether the news is good or bad.
“We just refuse to let them fail,” Varner said.
Refusal to fail
The quarterly reading tests students take can result in one of three scenarios. One, a student stays in his normal class for reading. Two, a student places into a gifted class taught by librarian Julie Eckhardt, or three, they place into “Prime Time,” a class that helps below-level students catch up.
“Prime Time” teacher Roxanne Savage sees roughly 75 below-grade-level students every day for reading instruction. The class is not special education.
“These are kids who would fall through the cracks in any classroom,” Savage said.
Some students need help deciphering the English language, in which five ways to sound out “ir” — ur and er, for example — can drive a kid crazy.
“Kids are learning how to break a code,” Savage said. “Just like sailors break Morse code.”
Each group, no larger than five students, begins its half hour with five minutes of phonogram cards, which involves sounding out combinations of letters. Students read books, too, but most of all, they learn surrounded by other students at their level. Children who feel secure enough to ask questions are children who learn.
“In small group reading, it’s quite all right to make a mistake, and we applaud it,” Savage said.
“This is like a safe haven where they can sit in here and we can catch them up,” said Debbie Waterman, who helps teach Prime Time.
Savage said Varner gave her freedom in devising how she wanted to organize her program. With both she and Waterman teaching groups for 30 minutes each, Savage maximizes the number of children she sees.
“Anything longer than (30 minutes), it’s almost redundant.”
The program works. In six months, a fourth-grader moved from reading at a 2.5 grade level — meaning just above second grade — to a 5.1 grade level.
If a first-grade student is reading on a kindergarten level, teachers work with the student on a kindergarten level until his fluency rises. “We’re plugging in the holes that they’ve missed,” Savage said.
The ultimate goal is to exit students from the class, and Savage said 17 students graduated that December day. As students leave, more enter, but Savage prioritizes those furthest behind.
Bi-weekly tests monitor students’ Prime Time progress.
In the gifted program, librarian Eckhardt teaches gifted fifth-graders on Wednesday mornings.
“The kids needed a little more than they were getting,” she said. Eckhardt said she urges her students to think deeply about the books they read. “There’s always more to the story than just the story.”
Characters change, plots develop, writers use similes and metaphors, and Eckhardt says she encourages students’ awareness of those devices.
Students recently researched notable people — Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa — and built Power Point presentations to display the information. Other gifted projects included reading “The Tale of Despereaux,” which recently hit theaters in movie form. After seeing the movie, students compared it to the book, extracting similarities and differences. They also wrote movie critiques.
In regular classes — Eckhardt sees every class once a week for 35 minutes — she complements classroom lessons while emphasizing research skills.
Fourth-grade teachers, for instance, delve into the Middle Ages. During library time, Eckhardt works with students to research events during specific time periods and create a timeline, which is a fourth-grade social studies objective.
Students learn how to search for information in books and on the Internet, and how to determine the veracity of electronically gleaned information.
Wikipedia, for instance, “is one of the sources I use to demonstrate that not everything posted is true,” Eckhardt said.
She also tries to encourage a love of non-fiction, which Eckhardt said is the best way to become a life-long student.
Although Eckhardt teaches students how to seek out information from periodicals, newspapers, magazines and other traditional print materials, she embraces the digital age and students’ enthusiasm for it. “The fact of the matter is that’s the way it’s going and you can’t stop that.”
Eckhardt’s nondiscrimination carries to types of reading materials. She encourages children to read, whatever the content. “Whether it’s comic books, graphic novels, ‘Captain Underpants’ — which some people find offensive — whatever it takes.”
Whatever it takes
Success often requires taking chances — whether it’s having students blow bubbles through a straw or handing a kid “Captain Underpants” to incite a love of reading.
Those are tangible methods of achieving excellence. Thematically, those methods amount to strong communication, a culture of collaboration and individual attention. However, those theories forget the element of chance. They forget that a brother and sister Bulldog may acquire entirely different temperaments.
The intangible elements are essential in Julia Randall’s success — teachers and others associated with the school often mention the evanescent when asked what about the Bulldog is so special.
“It’s just a feeling,” said Savage, the reading specialist. “Maybe it’s the ghost of Julia Randall, I don’t know,” she added. “You just love this place, it gets in your blood.”
Carr, the PTO president, agreed. “It’s like a family there,” she said. “You just get a feeling when you’re at JRE.”
To an outsider, that feeling amounts to casual yet ambitious, candid yet focused. In March, students and teachers will move to a new building now under construction next door.
Julia Randall, the redheaded stepchild of yesterday, will receive a new building and parents will perhaps request the placement of their children in this newest and shiniest building.
Varner says the new school is already one of the more popular places in town, with people stopping by and asking to see it.
Maybe it’s not the building after all. Maybe it’s the family inside.