School Board Woes

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The Payson School Board wants to expand testing and programs for gifted and talented students next year, but reluctantly concluded that state policies will make it impossible to expand vocational or foreign language programs.

Those conclusions grew out of a day-long board retreat to settle on key goals for the upcoming school year.

The board will formally adopt the goals at a future meeting, but the six-hour session on Saturday gave the board a chance to talk through their priorities on the brink of a year that will see wrenching changes throughout the district. Earlier this year the board voted to save $1 million by closing Frontier Elementary and cutting staff.

The board agreed to add to its goal, suggestions made by the Payson Association for Advanced Learners (PAAL), which has raised and donated some $60,000 this year to support classes for bright, creative students with unusual learning styles.

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Payson School Board member Barbara Shepherd at the retreat.

The group asked the board to start testing all students at different points in their school careers to see if they meet state and federal standards for “gifted and talented” status. The group of about 100 parents has also offered to raise money to pay stipends for coordinators at each school site to help schools develop programs geared for those students.

The group “has done a lot of good, groundbreaking work at the middle school level,” said board member Matt Van Camp.

“They have also brought resources to the table,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

The board directed O’Brien to develop some specific, measurable goals to improve those programs in the coming year. Those goals will be added under the heading of “continuous improvement of academic achievement.”

Most of the rest of the goals in that category remained unchanged. That includes things like tracking student progress with key tests, increasing the graduation rate, making sure that students get job-boosting certificates when they complete vocational classes and increasing the number of students getting high marks on Advanced Placement Tests.

O’Brien said that he doesn’t have the numbers crunched yet to report on how well the district did in meeting those existing goals this year — although the high school graduation rate rose an encouraging 3 percent.

However, the board expressed disappointment when they learned that the district can’t expect to increase the number of students in vocational or foreign language classes next year.

The district’s otherwise expanding vocational programs took a hit this year when the Arizona Legislature cut funding for ninth-grade vocational programs as a budget-saving measure.

The district gets extra funding for vocational programs through the Northern Arizona Vocational and Technical program (NAVIT). But the Legislature cut NAVIT funding significantly, including eliminating all funding for high school freshmen.

“We’ve been a shining star on Career and Technical Education,” said O’Brien, which includes computer science, building trades, automotive, nursing and other career-oriented programs. The high school works closely with Gila Community College, so many students get dual credit and end up with nearly a year’s worth of college credits by the time they graduate.

“We’ve made some great progress, but with no funding for ninth-grade classes it’s going to be hard to increase enrollments next year,” said O’Brien.

The one exception will likely be an innovative series of project-based engineering classes. Some 35 out of 180 freshmen have already signed up for the new course, which the district will offer even though the NAVIT cuts will deny the normal, extra funding.

Several board members expressed concern about the restrictions on the vocational programs forced by the state cutbacks.

“When I left the automotive program (at Payson High School), I was prepared to go into the work force in the industry,” said Van Camp, who is now a Payson police officer. “We need to make sure to have the certificates so when they leave, they have something in their hands.” He noted that students with the right certifications in the automotive industry can get starting jobs earning $60,000.

Board member Rory Huff said “so many of the jobs we have in this community are for welders and mechanics and nurses.”

Board member Barbara Shepherd noted that the vocational program includes classes that help students learn to be chefs or work in the food service industry. “So when my daughter went to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute at $30,000 a year — she could have started with some units already completed?”

“We have to make sure we’re putting enough effort into vocational education,” insisted Huff.

In the end, the board agreed to abandon the goal of increasing the number of students in vocational education next year — but to keep the goal of increasing the number of courses that would yield work-related certificates.

The second letdown came when the discussion turned to foreign language classes.

The current set of goals calls for increasing the number of students who take a foreign language.

However, the district’s foreign language offerings have dwindled steadily in the past few years and now rely on a single Spanish teacher at the high school. That teacher focuses mostly on helping college-bound students meet the two-year foreign language requirement at the state’s three universities.

O’Brien said rising state requirements that students take more math and social studies has largely squeezed foreign languages out of the schedule for most students — with the exception of two years of languages for the college-bound students.

He recommended the board therefore drop the goal of getting more students into the Spanish classes.

However, he added, “down the road, we might have online classes for French and Chinese” through an arrangement with Mesa Community College.

O’Brien noted that budget constraints will make it unlikely the district will make any progress on another key goal — the integration of new technologies into the classrooms.

O’Brien promised future reports on whether the district was meeting existing goals when it came to overall student achievement.

Last year figures indicated that although the district had increased the number of Advanced Placement courses, in many cases the students weren’t getting the 4s and 5s on the placement tests after taking the course that would earn them college credits. In some of the new AP science courses, none of the students were getting high enough scores to get that college credit. The administration hasn’t yet compiled full reports on the tracking tests on student progress in math and reading, which top the list of goals under student achievement.

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