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Realignment, new board members highlight Cottonwood-Oak Creek in 2018

Jason Finger: ‘There is no decision we made or didn’t make that I wish we could go back and change. All of our challenges were experiences that helped our district and leadership team to grow together’

Jason Finger: ‘There is no decision we made or didn’t make that I wish we could go back and change. All of our challenges were experiences that helped our district and leadership team to grow together’

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Nayadin Persaud, second from right, hugs Stephanie Jones during the May 1 Cottonwood-Oak Creek school board meeting. Persaud, who earlier this year was a fifth grade teacher at Mountain View Preparatory, replaced outgoing Oak Creek School Principal Christine Griffin, not pictured. Also pictured, teacher Amy Romero and new Mountain View Preparatory Principal Kelli Rhoda. VVN/Bill Helm

COTTONWOOD – With three candidates for three openings, Cottonwood-Oak Creek held no school board election this year.

Instead, Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter appointed challengers Mindy Bejarano and Neil Manzenberger and incumbent Eric Marcus to join Mary Valenzuela and JoAnne Cook on the district’s governing board.

But the big news is that longtime Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board member Jason Finger did not run to keep his seat at the district’s decision-making table.

Instead, Finger sought a spot with the Mingus Union School Board, and lost, to fellow challenger and first-time school board member Carol Anne Teague.

Win, lose, or draw, Finger said Thursday he has “no regrets,” especially when he considered the district’s vast accomplishments of the past year.

“There is no decision we made or didn’t make that I wish we could go back and change,” Finger said. “All of our challenges were experiences that helped our district and leadership team to grow together.”

K-8 x 4

It started in late-2017 when Cottonwood-Oak Creek Superintendent Steve King began to solicit public feedback on the possibility of closing down one of the district’s five schools to realign to a K-8 program across the remaining four schools.

Each of the district’s students would be assigned a school to attend, King said, and that the change in student population would only affect Cottonwood Elementary, Cottonwood Middle and Dr. Daniel Bright schools.

Now in his second year as the district’s superintendent, King didn’t exactly take the easy route, as Cottonwood-Oak Creek decided to reconfigure Cottonwood Elementary into the district’s expanding pre-school program, while Cottonwood Middle School was renamed Cottonwood Community School.

King began the process of school realignment in his first year after replacing longtime district superintendent Barb U’Ren. For King, the move to four K-8 programs was to create “family-friendly schools.”

And having K-8 schools would allow children to attend the same school for their first nine years.

‘One for the team’

Said Dr. Daniel Bright Principal Jessica Vocca, who moved over from Cottonwood Elementary School, the impact at her new school “has been incredibly positive and the parent support we have is top notch.”

Vocca, who had been principal at the grade 3-5 Cottonwood Elementary School the previous two years, also said that Dr. Daniel Bright has “been able to establish programs we couldn’t have in the other configuration.”

“It feels more family friendly and inspiring to continue to build a school that is family oriented,” she said. “To see siblings together and to talk to parents at their youngest child’s kindergarten performance and then again at their seventh grade child’s basketball game is refreshing. K-8 have a bigger impact on a positive culture of the school.”

Vocca’s assistant principal at Dr. Daniel Bright this year is Nancy Erickson, who accepted a demotion after having served as the school’s principal the previous eight years.

Now in her 24th year in COCSD schools, Erickson “took one for the team,” King said at the time of the announcement. “She sees the bigger picture and believes in the direction we’re headed. Nancy is everything that’s right in education.”

Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board member Eric Marcus said he is “especially pleased with [the district’s] transition to K-8 schools and the advantages I am confident it will bring as our students develop and advance into high school and beyond.”

New school leadership

Of the district’s four schools, only one principal – Matt Schumacher – was not either promoted or given a new campus to lead.

But Schumacher’s assignment is also new this year, as the former grade 6-8 CMS principal now leads Cottonwood Community School from the same site.

Schumacher sought permission from the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board – and got it – to implement a dress code “to support the campus vision as tied to the development of the PACK and intentionally cultivating a sense of belonging.”

Mountain View Preparatory, the district’s International Baccalaureate (IB) school, also uses a dress code. Kelli Rhoda, first-year principal at MVP, said she is “proud of the collaboration between the four schools in our district.”

“I see a camaraderie between administration as we meet monthly for meetings,” said Rhoda, who a year ago was the school’s math and science teacher. “It is nice to work together as a team. I learn so much every time we are together.”

Rhoda replaced Stephanie Jones who retired at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. Though Nayadin Persaud finished second to Rhoda to become MVP principal, the school’s fifth grade teacher a year ago replaced Christine Griffin as principal at Oak Creek School in Cornville.

Persaud said she is “most proud of the hard work and dedication the Oak Creek School teachers have done with providing STEM opportunities to our students.”

 “Our teachers strive to provide a safe, enriching and engaging learning environment,” the first-year principal said. “We are all cultivating a spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and positivity on our campus.”

Open Meeting Law complaint

On Oct. 22, the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board sought legal advice over an Open Meeting Law complaint that King said pertained to “other people [who] were discussed” during his evaluation.

“Just normal discussions of my evaluation,” King said.

In an Oct. 4 letter written to the district’s governing board, Arizona Assistant Attorney General Richard Baek stated that the complaint alleges that matters discussed during an executive session of the board’s April 3, 2018 meeting “may have gone beyond the permissible scope of the executive session and/or may have been inappropriately noticed on the agenda.”

“Specifically, the complaint alleges that a board member specifically named and discussed employees during the executive session and these employees did not receive proper notice,” Baek’s letter stated.

Though matters discussed in executive session cannot be discussed in open session, King said Thursday that the district sent Baek a letter of response in November that stated the board believed there was “no open meeting law violation.”

The matter has not been resolved, King said.

“We haven’t received anything back since,” King said.

Consolidation

Though school district consolidation is more than its own story, Cottonwood-Oak Creek twice voiced its continued support that a possible merger with Mingus Union High School District should go to public vote.

“We are not recommending pro – or con,” Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s Eric Marcus said of the board’s Nov. 6 vote. “This is so important that we want the people of the community to vote.”

C-OC principals look back at 2018

One principal gets a new school, one’s school gets a new name, two schools get first-year principals. Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s school leadership has plenty to say about the successes that color their 2018 year.

The following is feedback from Cottonwood Community Principal Matt Schumacher, Dr. Daniel Bright Principal Jessica Vocca, Mountain View Preparatory Principal Keli Rhoda and Oak Creek Principal Nayadin Persaud.

Hard work and dedication

“I am most proud of the hard work and dedication the Oak Creek School teachers have done with providing STEM opportunities to our students,” Oak Creek Principal Nayadin Persaud said. “For example, Mrs. Ludden’s first grade has gone on a STEM related field trip every single month so far this school year. She has raised funds online and has taken advantage of local opportunities to help her first graders.

“Our fifth graders attended JA BizTown program and simulation organized by Mrs. Alagna,” Persaud said. “Our fourth graders went on Pink Jeep Tours to explore and learn about rocks. Lastly, Mrs. Forester, has led our robotics club to the state competition, which will be held on Jan. 19-20.”

Pride

“I am very proud to be the principal at Mountain View Preparatory,” Kelli Rhoda said. “The teachers and staff at MVP have so much heart and are extremely dedicated to the needs of their students. I feel such a sense of pride as I walk around our beautiful campus and into the classrooms. My favorite time of day is kindergarten lunch time. If you ever need to feel loved and appreciated, step into a room full of 5-year olds.”

Mission

Cottonwood Community School Principal Matt Schumacher said his school continues to “tighten up the articulation and execution of our mission with new personnel.”

“Ideally, this would have been finished by now to inform our daily practice; however, mandatory operational pieces needed to be solidified first,” Schumacher said.

Showcase

Dr. Daniel Bright Principal Jessica Vocca said her school is “extremely proud of being nominated as a Capturing Kids Hearts Showcase school.”

“This is something we have been working hard toward,” Vocca said. “There have been some lessons learned on how to accommodate this program K-8, but we keep learning and adjusting to fit the needs of the student population. The best thing to help build this positive school culture is to see seventh and eighth graders become mentors to kindergarten and first grade. There is nothing more precious to see a ‘cool’ middle school kid work with a 5-year-old. Truly inspiring to witness.”

-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42

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