The Payson school board adopted an ambitious set of goals for the upcoming year, which included big ticket items like boosting student test scores and reducing the district’s worrisome dropout rate.

The board’s five goals didn’t include any benchmarks — and precious few specifics on what will constitute success.

However, the board went into executive session with Superintendent Linda Gibson on Tuesday shortly after adopting the board’s goals to hammer out a much more specific set of expectations for Gibson.

The top goal embraced an increase in the graduation rate and student test scores, which will involve reversing a discouraging loss of ground in the past year during the pandemic.

The district for years has suffered from a graduation rate below the already low statewide rate.

The state auditor general’s school district report card put the district’s 2019 graduation rate at just 68%. In part, this reflects the district’s steady student turnover — with many students starting at Payson High School, but leaving before their senior year. It also reflects the large number of students who simply quit school before graduation. Payson also has a relatively low college attendance rate, although those figures are not kept consistently.

The U.S. Census Bureau says 87% of Arizona residents have a high school diploma and 30% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Nationally, 88% have a high school diploma and 33% have a bachelor’s degree. However, those figures lump together both people who went through the Arizona school system and those who got a degree elsewhere, then migrated to Arizona.

The situation has only gotten worse in the past year, both in Arizona and in the U.S. — thanks to the massive disruption in education caused by the pandemic. Arizona schools lost about 50,000 students during the pandemic. Payson schools dropped from an enrollment of almost 2,400 to just short of 2,000.

So the district will have to cope with a potentially huge increase in the dropout rate caused by the pandemic — if those students don’t show up again when classes restart in August. If students flock back, the district should be able to beat the 2020 graduation rate — deeply overshadowed by the pandemic.

The district also suffered a big drop in student test scores, along with most of the public schools in the nation.

The most recent test scores show that most students statewide aren’t proficient in math or English. Payson is in the top 50% of school districts statewide, but not by much.

For the 2021 school year, 41% of Payson students were proficient for their grade level in math — compared to 44% statewide. The district did better in reading — with 48% scoring as proficient, compared to 45% statewide.

Even for those students scoring proficient or highly proficient, an uncomfortably large percentage made only minimal progress in the course of the school year — which was disrupted by the shifts in and out of distance learning mode during the pandemic.

The district used federal stimulus money to offer summer school to a much larger than normal share of the students, in hopes they can make up ground lost during the school year. The district has also launched aggressive efforts to “reteach” lessons for students who are struggling.

The district will also shift to a four-day school week when classes resume in August, which could affect test scores next semester — although research in other districts shows little long-term impact on test scores with the shift to a four-day school week.

The board’s just-adopted goals include four other areas in which it will likely prove even harder to quantify success.

The goals include:

1. Increase student achievement in two areas: graduation rate and growth/proficiency.

2. Foster strong accountability, consistency and standardized processes throughout the district.

3. Build better community relationships with all stakeholders by improving communication with students, parents, staff and the community.

4. Build a strong district culture and improve student and staff retention levels.

5. Ensure the health and safety of staff, students and the school community.

That final goal could also prove complicated, with the pandemic still threatening.

COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise in the community.

Last year, the district spent about half the time in the distance learning mode. In the classroom, students generally wore masks and tried to practice social distancing.

Despite the precautions, clusters of COVID cases surfaced. The district had to shut down both the high school and the middle school for several weeks at a time due to outbreaks that forced so many teachers to quarantine that the district couldn’t find enough substitutes to continue.

The number of new cases remains far below the January peak, but are increasing rapidly as the delta variant spreads.

The district will resume in-person classes on Aug. 2.

Only about 6% of Gila County residents younger than 20 have gotten fully vaccinated, although the federal government has approved the vaccine for anyone over 12, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services website.

In the meantime, Gov. Doug Ducey has issued an executive order saying that schools cannot impose mask mandates, cannot ask whether children have been vaccinated, cannot require anyone to get vaccinated and cannot even quarantine unvaccinated students or staff who are exposed to the virus.

Some districts have said they will instead abide by the federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations, which include masking indoors and quarantine for unvaccinated students exposed to the virus. New York and other jurisdictions are also requiring public employees like teachers, public health workers and police officers to get vaccinated.

Payson has so far resolved to follow the governor’s directives rather that the federal CDC.

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