School starts Wednesday, and new and returning teachers in the Payson Unified School District have already arrived on campus, preparing for the onslaught of students.
Budget cuts have forced changes, including the loss of all-day kindergarten and the elimination of teaching positions, but Superintendent Casey O’Brien remained hopeful.
“We’re optimistic about having a good year,” he said. Besides academic improvements, new schools and upgrades for existing schools have the district’s buildings in excellent shape, a new agriculture building will soon break ground, and the district will soon enjoy solar power.
A new fence at the high school will keep students in and strangers out. Board member Barbara Underwood has a granddaughter who will be a freshman starting Wednesday.
“As a grandparent, it’s comforting to know strangers can’t walk on campus,” Underwood said.
“You don’t really want them in a senior vehicle,” she added. “Let them grow up gradually.”
Despite layoffs, the district had to hire new teachers to fill other vacancies.
“We are really pleased with the caliber of teachers because in some cases, we had very short notice,” said O’Brien. “I’m excited about having them on board.”
New staff includes recent University of Arizona graduate Jadee Garner, who will take over the agriculture program. Former agriculture teacher Wendell Stevens technically retired, although he will take the spot of career and technical education coordinator Sandy Somsen, who facilitated programs with the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT). NAVIT provides the district funding.
Garner can learn from Stevens, and Stevens can help O’Brien with curriculum issues since the district’s curriculum coordinator was laid off this spring.
Other new teachers include Pamela Ryan, who will teach high school math; Bill Goodwin, who will teach boys physical education; Jake Swartwood, will be a special education teacher at Julia Randall Elementary; Casey Woodall and Ron Silverman, who will teach high school social studies; Michael James Ellis, a new Northern Arizona University graduate who majored in physics education; and Nora Lubetz will teach high school English.
Nevertheless, fewer staff translates into more responsibility.
“We’re asking more and more of our teachers, and right now were asking that with diminished resources,” said O’Brien. “I think the only way we can accomplish that goal is by pulling together.”
Also new this year, elementary school days will increase by 15 minutes to give more instruction time to part-day kindergarten students.
O’Brien said the time adds up. Over a month, 15 minutes each school day equals five hours. Teachers could use that extra time to work with kids struggling with phonics, for example. “It’s time management for teachers,” he said.
Three sections worth of the tuition-based all-day kindergarten have signed up, but students continue to register for part-day kindergarten, leaving O’Brien hopeful that this year’s enrollment, which drives state funding, will hold steady, if not increase.