School districts around Rim Country had upheavals in leadership, changing the landscape of the schools — with an mudslide of state and federal mandates and cutbacks moving down the steep slopes of educational reform threatening to engulf them.
The Payson Unified School District started the school year with a new superintendent and now has three new school board members.
The Tonto School lost its superintendent and will now search for a new leader.
The Pine-Strawberry School knew its beloved superintendent would retire by the end of this year and braced itself. Concern with the search for a new leader colored the elections for a new school board.
The change in leadership has allowed the Payson Schools to get back to the basics and consider its goals and priorities.
Superintendent Ron Hitchcock started his tenure with a list of four goals that the school board and staff have agreed to support.
Number one – Continuous student achievement.
Number two – Customer Service.
Number three – Quality of Facilities and Grounds
Number four – School Board Service, Accountability and Transparency.
These goals have refocused the schools in the district. Each principal and every special district from maintenance to technology and Special Education has made a presentation at a board meeting on their areas.
Bringing the district onto the same page with its goals is like tantamount to controlling an unruly crew to chart a new course.
Major changes in education policy come into effect next school year.
In its effort to revamp the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top mandates, states across the country have opted into the Common Core Standards.
Reformers hope that the new standards will bring critical thinking skills into the classroom. Ironically enough, the initial effect of those reforms likely include the development of a national curriculum and far more standardized testing to judge the progress of students and the abilities of teachers. Teachers will be required to not only teach their subject, but prepare their students for a brands new set of national tests to measure whether their students are progressing and how well they can communicate their knowledge.
The state’s effort to take advantage of the new system to transform the system for rating schools and teachers adds an additional layer of complexity – and controversy.
The state has already shifted to a system of giving each school a letter grade based largely on how well students cores on the existing AIMS graduation test of basic skills. The rating system give districts credit for improving their grade and gives extra weight to the scores of students in the bottom 25 percent of scores for the school. Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed a system that will give an ever-growing reward for schools that either improve their grade of maintain a high grade, with money increasingly taken from schools that struggle with low grades based on student test scores.
Rim Country Middle School got a D in the most recent state ratings. The district’s other schools have done better.
Advocates say grades based on student scores will hold schools accountable. Critics say the new system will simply divert more money to rich school districts with high-achieving kids from college educated families and penalize schools like rural, Rim Country school district that have lots of kids from low-income families and limited access to technology and curriculum upgrades.
The state has also required districts to shift to a “Move on when ready” approach to basic skills in the primary grades. The state will soon require districts to hold back any 3rd graders with reading skills well below grade level. The shift is modeled on a Florida program and research showing that most students who read poorly in third grade fall ever further behind as they advance. However, Arizona imposed the requirement on local districts while cutting funding, while Florida accompanied its mandate with billions of dollars in additional funding for things like reading specialists in the primary grades.
To raise the stakes even higher, the state has also required school districts to base at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student test scores, even as it phases out the AIMS test and embraces a battery of still-developing national tests.
All of this high-stakes change comes against a backdrop of financial crisis. National studies show that in the past four years the Arizona legislature has made deeper spending cuts in K-12 and higher education than any other state. The relentless cuts have shrunk state, per-student support back to 2007 levels, with only a little recovery this year.
In Payson, a steady enrollment decline of 50 to 100 students each year has compounded the effects of the state reductions. Two years ago the district closed Frontier Elementary School, resulting in a 15-20 percent increase in elementary school class sizes. The district has laid of teachers almost every year and cut district funding for almost all its sports and extracurricular activities – which now subsist almost entirely on donations. Fortunately, residents contribute more than $300,000 annually to the district through the Credit for Kids tax credit program. The districts teachers have gone several years without a raise, despite the overall increase in class size and accumulating, unpaid efforts to support extra programs.
Hitchcock has tackled the challenges, fostering a new, more-open approach to public meetings and citizen input. He also pushed to hire a “student achievement director” to help the district adapt to the overwhelming emphasis on test scores when it comes to teacher and staff evaluations and school funding.
The new school board will have to cope with bewildering conflicting demands – with shrinking resources.
Board members Kim Bound and Barbara Sheperd both left.
Board President Barbara Underwood was handily re-elected – but so was former teacher James Quinlin and Shirley Dye, a former Tea Party activist. Both Quinlin and Dye have offered sharp criticisms of many policies of the previous board. When Sheperd resigned after the election, Gila County Superintendent of Schools appointed Dale Walla to the vacant seat. One of the founders of the parent group Payson Area Advanced Learners (PAAL), Walla had advocated stronger programs for top students, more parent input in a low-key style. Quinlin has already emerged as skeptic and an advocate for the district’s teachers. Dye often raises questions at the board meetings – including such basic issues as whether the district should adopt the national Common Core Standards. Some Tea Party activists and conservative Republicans in the Arizona legislature have linked Common Core to Agenda 21, a 20-year old United Nation’s resolution calling on nations to adopt environmentally sustainable policies.
Pine/Strawberry School District
The Pine- Strawberry School District this year hired Duncan Elementary School Principal Cody Barlow to replace retiring, long-time Superintendent Mike Clark.
The small, K-8 school district whose students attend high school mostly in the Payson District has faced many of the same challenges as Payson, without nearly as much controversy. In part, that’s because state formulas give such small districts much more money per student than larger districts like Payson. That mostly because the district still needs a minimum number of administrators, but can’t spread the cost of that overhead across very many students.
Barlow said the friendly greeting and small-town feel sold him on the job, starting with the community dinner thrown for the six finalists. “When my wife and I left the barbecue, we said, ‘This is the way a small town should be,’” said Barlow. He and his family, which includes his wife and three children, have visited the Rim Country in the past to see his sister and brother, who live in Mesa.
“I’ll be moving a lot closer to family,” he said.
He also looks forward to the educational opportunities for his children. Duncan is a small town that sits on the border with New Mexico, so remote the nearest grocery store requires an hour’s drive. Moving to the Rim Country will get his family closer to Phoenix and Flagstaff and all they have to offer. Barlow has worked in education for the last 14 years. He has an undergraduate degree in science education and a master’s in education.
“I started as a high school science teacher in Show Low,” he said, “then worked as a junior high science teacher before going into administration.”
With his strong background in chemistry, he used to take his students to science competitions at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. He is excited to take his 16-year-old daughter and two sons, one 14 the other 9, to the cities and universities to show them the arts, culture and educational opportunities.
As principal of Duncan Elementary, Barlow had 270 kindergarten through eighth-grade students under his care. The Pine school has about 123 students and has suffered persistent declines. Students transfer to the Payson school district when they hit high school.
Tonto Basin School District
Tonto Basin Superintendent Mary Lou Weatherly resigned from her position this year just 18-months into her tenure, caught in a reaction against her management style and the changes she attempted to introduce.
She said some of the parent complaints that ultimately led to her resignation came from a lack are the tiny district for the incoming Common Core Standards.
“The parents don’t understand the state and federal mandates on teachers and administrators,” said Weatherly. She said the board originally hired her to refocus the district on improving academic performance, with state changes placing more and more emphasis on standardized test scores.
The Arizona Department of Education has labeled the Tonto Basin School a “C” school Weatherly reported at the meeting.
On the other side of the tide of change, parents Brandy Cline, Katy Taylor and Shayla Rose have pulled their children from the school because they felt the school was “no longer a safe, productive learning environment.” Reportedly, the tiny, 77-student, K-8 district has lost more than 17 students this year. Taylor said that although Weatherly tried to improve academics, her administrative style caused strife and stress and conflicted with the school’s culture.
Some parents have complained about discipline and Weatherly’s decision not to put a teacher on administrative leave while an investigation into alleged problems with students continues.
Weatherly also upset some community members when she moved her office into a historic building volunteers had restored for a preschool.
The school now serves as the center of the community, with weddings and funerals held on the basketball court — the largest room in the town.
Board member George Ewing reminisced about the school. Not only has he served on the board on and off for 25 years, but he graduated from the school. “In the 1950s, it got down to two students, so my grandpa went to Globe to hire a family (to work on his ranch) with six kids,” he said.
Weatherly’s PowerPoint said all the teachers are now certified as “highly qualified” in their subjects, which wasn’t true when she arrived. Her presentation noted that the Tonto Basin school was behind in reporting on its Title I audit information, but she managed to get the Arizona Department of Education to waive four years of audit information so the school could keep its federal Title I funding, intended to help low-income students.
The presentation listed all of the upgrades made during Weatherly’s time including a new air conditioning unit, water filters, new servers and switches to keep the school connected to the Internet, updated computer labs, laptops for classrooms, science lab equipment, and increased safety measures, including sheriff and fire access to the building in case of emergency.
To improve academics, Weatherly’s said she had replaced outdated instructional materials, brought grading expectations in line with national standards, set up a system for teachers to share testing data on students, introduced a new teacher evaluation system as the Common Core requires, and familiarized teachers with tests designed to help students do better on the yearly Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).
“That’s the name of the game now,” Weatherly said after the meeting. “We can no longer just get by with teaching to the middle percentile of kids.”