Sat, April 04

Verde Valley schools teach for success despite average grades

VERDE VALLEY – There are two schools of thought – no pun intended – to preparing students for their future.

Teach for success – or teach to the test.

One could infer that the preliminary grades released Monday by the Arizona State Board of Education are a lesson in what happens when schools neglect the latter.

But educators across the Verde Valley are clear that neglecting the former is just not an option.

Educators at Mingus Union High School gear their program’s improvements to “best serve the whole student,” says Genie Gee, one of two assistant principals at the 9-12 school.

“We want to prepare students for college and career by addressing not only their academic needs, but their social-emotional needs,” Gee says. “We do give great and focused attention to our test scores and our A-F letter grade because those are the scores that represent us to those who haven’t been inside our building to observe all the wonderful things happening with students.”

Gee admits that Mingus Union takes seriously the state’s analytics.

“But if you want to truly see the magic of Mingus Union High School, come on in we’d love to show you,” she says.

The State Board of Education’s preliminary 2016-2017 A-to-F letter grades for schools can be seen at

A complete breakdown of the A-F School Accountability can also be found at

Over the hill

According to the preliminary grades, there were 10 Prescott-area schools that graded B and two Prescott-area schools that graded A.

Among Verde Valley schools, a B was given to three schools: Mountain View Preparatory, Oak Creek School and Sedona-Red Rock High School. No other school in the Verde Valley rated higher than C.

Why the disparity between one side of the county and the other?

Danny Brown, formerly with Humboldt Unified School District before joining Clarkdale-Jerome as superintendent in July, admits that it’s “hard to pinpoint a reason as to the higher overall labels between the two sides of the mountain.”

“Larger districts across the state usually employee directors that oversee curriculum, assessment, professional development and other academic support areas to assist teachers and staff,” brown says. “If you look at the labels across the state, you will probably see a correlation between ‘A’ schools and higher socioeconomic status of its students. To contradict that assumption Mayer Elementary School has an extremely low socioeconomic status and received a B.”

What do other educators say about the preliminary grades?

Gee and other education-minded individuals in the Verde Valley recently spoke about their district’s grade.

Danny Brown, superintendent, Clarkdale-Jerome School

“After a review, we realize there are areas where we can improve and we will analyze our data and make adjustments to help students grow,” Brown says.

Admitting clear and present bias, Brown says he would have given his school an A.

“We are a small school that provides a safe school environment with low student-to-teacher ratio,” Brown says. “We utilize the latest technology in the classroom for both teachers and students. I think you cannot quantify the fact that our students are taught by some incredibly talented and caring individuals. We have a great art program that has been supported by our community over the years.”

Dr. Penny Hargrove, superintendent/principal, Mingus Union High School District

“This the first attempt by the Arizona Board of Education as they work to find an appropriate system to rate Arizona schools. We view it as a starting point for the future growth and program development, or a data point as we work to provide our students a relevant and appropriate education.

“This grade is only one gauge of our schools and districts. This gauge will very likely morph over the next several months as the Arizona Board of Education addresses concerns from the education field and communities. Our staff is confident that our score will rise as we continue efforts to develop and sustain a student-centered model of education that focuses on personalized learning.”

Jennifer Hernandez, Expect More Arizona’s northern Arizona community engagement manager

“Arizona educators are among the lowest paid in the nation, but our teachers and school leaders in the Verde Valley area are working hard for our students and achieving great things. We agree that high-quality teachers make a tremendous difference in a student’s education.

“Much like the previous A-F letter grade system, this new model relies heavily on AzMERIT. However, the new model places more emphasis on growth, which is important because students come into the classroom at different starting points – some at grade level, some ahead and others behind.”

“Measuring growth acknowledges the work that schools do to help each child make progress, regardless of where they begin.”

Steve King, superintendent, Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District

“While there is little clarity on the meaning of these school grades, what is crystal clear has been the lack of commitment of our state’s leaders to meet their obligations to provide adequate resources for our most vital, valuable, and vulnerable population.

“Also clear is that the greatest correlation in these school grades can be found in student family income level. Resources matter, and those with the least have given up the most for the past 25 years as we have seen support for our public schools amongst our state's leaders drop precipitously.

“Clearer still is the dedication, industry, and inspiration of our local educators who, in spite of great and growing challenges are doing the job every day and with every kid. Their commitment makes for quite a contrast.”

Mark Plitzuweit, president and CEO of Edkey Inc. and Sequoia Schools

Edkey Inc. is the parent company of American Heritage Academy’s Camp Verde and Cottonwood campuses. Says Mark Plitzuweit, the company’s CEO, an accountability system is “necessary to the growth and sustainability of the educational system in the State of Arizona. [But] we do not believe that the current model is an effective way of measuring school success.”

“Small rural schools that cannot scale to size or do not have certain demographic groups, do not have the ability to earn maximum points, therefore restricting their ability to earn an appropriate and representative letter grade,” Plitzuweit says.

Genie Gee, assistant principal, Mingus Union High School

“We are always proud of gains in student achievement and continue to focus on improvement moving forward. Our juniors showed tremendous growth last year with scores six percent higher than the state average in English and scores 12 percent higher than the state average in Algebra II.

“Geometry students also scored four percent higher than the state average. Overall, Mingus continues to make progress and we improved in almost all End of Course assessments.

“College and Career readiness was a new component to the A-F letter grade, and while satisfied with the overall score as a starting point, we have already begun coordinating efforts to show marked improvement for scoring next year.”

-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42

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