By Dana Trumbull
Three topics dominated the discussion at the October 23 Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board meeting: AZMerit school labels, academic calendar approval and Board Norms and Expectations.
“We are not proud of our current letter grades,” stated Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson, referring to the recently received 2017-18 AZMerit academic performance labels assigned by the Arizona Department of Education. The A to F scale reflects student academic growth and proficiency. After three years of four-day academic weeks and higher than normal staff turnover, the district dropped by one letter grade in all of the schools except for Cactus Canyon Junior High, which held onto its pre-existing C label. Peralta Trail Elementary dropped from a B to a C, while Four Peaks, Desert Vista and AJHS dropped to D ratings.
“Our 3-year strategic plan says that we are going to be at state average by 2021 and continue that path beyond,” stated Anderson. “We have smart kids in our district. We have great staff. We just need to be focused on the right stuff, and that is kids and their learning.”
In the October 15 edition of The News, Anderson revealed that school principals had already begun working on “comprehensive student improvement plans” over the summer. “As a district, we are committed to delivering results-oriented actions that will focus on strengthening students’ core skills, as well as providing professional growth opportunities for staff.”
Seeking additional tips to strategically focus academic efforts, Director of Educational Services Heather Wallace took a small team to Vail Unified School District, the creators of Beyond Textbooks, an award-winning curricular collaborative in which AJUSD participates. Historically, the district has focused on increasing the academic performance of the students who score in the bottom 25%; however, the mentors at Vail pointed out that, because the state school labels are largely based on growth, school ratings will improve if that effort is realigned to focus on students who are approaching the “hump” between performance categories at all levels. “At all times you are working to be sure that all kids are making progress,” clarified Wallace, “but the shift needs to be from that bottom quarter to those who are able to make the jump. That’s what increases the overall school letter grades.”
Wallace continued, “The other big piece that we talked about is the relatively new College and Career Readiness component. That’s self-reporting, so we have to really be tracking the data all through the school year. It’s easy to get sidetracked, but if we wait until May to pull the numbers, it’s easy to miss something.”
A few of these components include: the number of students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application for college financial aid and the number of students who take two years of a foreign language. One year is required for high school graduation; however, “Taking that extra year as an elective not only helps the school in their point system, but it really does help the student later as they make college and career decisions.”
Additional points toward improving school performance labels can be earned by strengthening Special Education School to Work opportunities and tracking data on student transfers and withdrawals.
“Obviously, having more funding allows you to do more things,” concluded Wallace, “but you can have a lot of money and not do smart things, so it’s about doing smart things with the money that we have.”
The Governing Board unanimously approved a new academic calendar that will remain in effect for two years, through 2019-20 and 2020-21. The calendar is similar to the current year, with an intentional effort toward building a stable cycle. It maintains the 5-day school schedule and incorporates 2-week breaks in the fall and spring and over the winter holidays.
Board member Cami Garcia stated, “The kids are more vibrant now [with the return of the 5-day week.] I’ve spoken with teachers and principals, and kids are not falling asleep in 6th or 7th hour; they have full attention at all times. We tried the four-day for three years; I think that we need to be consistent with this calendar for a full year, and then check the test scores and all the things that we looked at when we made the decision.”
After an extensive, albeit subdued conversation about the proposed Board Norms and Expectations document, Board members in attendance agreed to table the adoption vote until November 13 so that all members could be in attendance for the decision. (Board VP Kimble was absent for this meeting.)
“I think for the most part, it’s a pretty good document,” admitted member Christa Rizzi, although she remains reticent about banning Board member access to cell phones during meetings and continues to seek clarification about public discussions outside the Board room. Rizzi is seeking to stall any decision until after the new Board member(s) take office in January.
The Governing Board unanimously approved a $500 annual stipend for Parapro II employees (aides who assist physically challenged students with personal hygiene, eating and mobility). Also approved was the hiring of a math consultant for teachers’ professional support, contracting with Applied Economics for a Demographic and Enrollment Analysis and the Performance Pay Plan and Goals for the superintendent, all of which were discussed at length at the September 25 Board work session.
Receiving both approval and applause was the line item for out-of-state travel for Cactus Canyon Journalism instructor Jason Davis. The CCJH online news blog, Canyon Chronicle, has been named as a finalist for the National Scholastic Press Association (NSAP) “Middle School Story of the Year.” The award will be presented at the NSAP annual convention on November 3, 2018, in Chicago. While there, Davis will also be recognized with a certificate and pin for becoming a JEA Certified Journalism Educator.