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Arizona’s National Blue Ribbon Schools share secrets to their students’ success

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

FranklinBlueRibbonSchool HP 2

Four Arizona schools honored as National Blue Ribbon exemplary high performing schools for their students’ test scores and graduation rate say strong community engagement is key to their success and that sharing what works with other educators is critically important.

“This award is validation that the hard work and dedication of our teachers, our students and our parents is paying off,” said Lorenzo Cabrera, principal of Franklin Police and Fire High School in Phoenix Union High School District.

Arizona’s National Blue Ribbon Schools share secrets to their students’ success FranklinBlueRibbonSchoolHPAll the schools included the other factors that contribute to their schools’ positive learning environments and led to student achievement in their applications.

“Our success is a direct result of what happens when great instruction is supported by a strong, healthy community,” said Katie Dabney, former principal of Mesquite Elementary, a district-sponsored charter in Vail School District in Pima County.

The Arizona schools are among 287 public and 50 private schools nationwide honored this year by the U.S. Department of Education for high learning standards or closing the achievement gap. The schools will be honored during a ceremony Nov. 10-11 in Washington D.C.

“This is one of the most prestigious awards a school can attain, and I am so proud of our dedicated, talented teachers and smart, hard-working students,” said Victoria Wilber, principal of Reid Traditional School’s Valley Academy, a K-8 charter school in northwest Phoenix.

Arizona’s National Blue Ribbon Schools share secrets to their students’ success Reid-Traditional-Schools’-Valley-Academy-Collage-VA1000Benson Primary School Principal Jomel Jansson said everyone “is extremely proud to be announced as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

“This recognition celebrates outstanding student achievement and growth while looking at the positive culture and caring relationships established at Benson Primary School,” Jansson said.  “Benson Primary School has been able to hire and retain some of the finest and most dedicated school personnel in the state of Arizona.”

In the past 30 years, about 7,900 American schools have been honored as National Blue Ribbon Schools. Schools are nominated by the top education official in each state, Washington D.C., U.S. territories, Department of Defense Education Activity and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Student achievement

Each school completed a written application that included five years of student achievement data.

“The judges looked specifically at data by subgroups (ELL, Special Education, Free & Reduced, African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) that saw marked academic improvement,” said Natalie Luna Rose, Vail communications specialist. “This is a more comprehensive look at student achievement, than other recognitions Mesquite has received in the past.”

Mesquite has been the highest achieving school in Vail School District, which was ranked the highest performing school district in Arizona in 2011-12 and 2012-2013.

Arizona’s National Blue Ribbon Schools share secrets to their students’ success MesquiteElementary

Mesquite Elementary kindergarten teacher Mrs. Halvorson working with students at reading groups.

“With Mesquite being recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, I am truly once again humbled by the commitment to excellence of our staff, the support of our families and community, and the work of our students in pursuit of academic excellence,” said Calvin Baker, Vail superintendent.

Benson Primary School in Benson Unified School District rural Cochise County attributed it’s 16 percent gains in third-grade AIMS math scores over five years to hiring and retaining quality employees that provide school family for students, faithfully using Beyond Textbooks curriculum calendars aligned to state standards and information from weekly assessment-data grade-level team meetings to help students achieve more.

“We follow a curriculum calendar that is aligned to state standards and use formative and benchmark assessments,” Jansson said. “All data is then used to drive instruction.  All classrooms have effective classroom management with high levels of student engagement.”

Benson Primary School has been recognized as an A school for the past three years by the Arizona Department of Education, is part of the 2013 number one ranked district in Arizona, and is the top traditional elementary school in Cochise County.

“The staff at Benson Primary works extremely hard. They share a vision of quality instruction, they build great relationships with their students, and they work as a team to do what is best for students,” said Micah Mortensen, superintendent of Benson Unified. “All of these critical pieces are carefully shaped and nurtured by Mrs. Jansson’s leadership, as she pours her heart and soul into Benson Primary.  Her example inspires staff and students to do the same.”

In 2014, all Franklin Police and Fire High School sophomores passed the AIMS reading exam and 99 percent passed writing. The 310-student specialty school’s most recent four-year graduation rate is 95 percent, and the small graduating class last year earned over $2 million in scholarships.

Arizona’s National Blue Ribbon Schools share secrets to their students’ success BensonPrimaryBlueRibbonSchool“We employ specific math and reading intervention to help support our students,” Cabrera said. “We certainly, ‘are not there yet,’ however, we are doing our best to provide all of our students the support and opportunities to be successful.”

Franklin Police and Fire has earned As for the past four years as part of Arizona’s A-F Accountability system.

“This is further proof that urban school districts can be successful with creative, relevant programming, outstanding teachers and motivated, engaged students,” said Dr. Kent Scribner, Phoenix Union Superintendent. “While 86 percent of Franklin students come from low income families, 100 percent are successful. They will be this community’s future leaders and public safety heroes.”

Only nine Arizona charter schools have ever been named a National Blue Ribbon School, said Heidi Mitchell, CEO of Reid Traditional Schools.

“This is truly an honor, and it is a wonderful way to commemorate Valley Academy’s 20th year of excellence in education,” Mitchell said.

Arizona’s National Blue Ribbon Schools share secrets to their students’ success FranklinCollageIn the past five years, every grade level at Reid Traditional School’s Valley Academy has met the school goal of 90 percent of students passing AIMS reading. Students learn with the Spalding phonics program, an accelerated Saxon math program, hands-on science curriculum developed in collaboration with others including the Arizona Science Center.

Reid Traditional School’s Valley Academy was one of the first charter schools founded in Arizona, has received the top available rating from the Arizona Department of Education every year since its inception in 1995 and was named 2011 Charter School of the Year by the Arizona Charter School Association.

“There are a lot of other things we have to do as a school besides the academics, but at the end of the day it’s our job to get these children to be literate citizens who can compute and function at a high level in society,” Mitchell said.

Other factors

Factors other than student achievement also contribute to a successful learning environment, said Bobbie O’Boyle, executive director of the Arizona Educational Foundation.

The Arizona Educational Foundation’s A+ School of Excellence Program also considers school culture, leadership, professional development, family/community involvement, curriculum, meaningful assessment, opportunities for all students to learn challenging content, opportunities for students to apply their learning to real world situations and student focus and support.

“It’s a really comprehensive school assessment tool and program. The schools get a lot out of it just by going through the application process and finding out where their strengths are and where their challenges are,” O’Boyle said.

Applications for the A+ School of Excellence Program were made available in August, are due back in mid-January and award winners will be announced in mid- to late-April.

“We continue to look at other factors knowing that there is far more to the success of a school than can ever be measured in terms of test data,” O’Boyle said. “I think the public knows that too, but you need something tangible that you can hang your hat on and test scores provide you with that.”

Gallup research indicates that the most important elements in students success are having someone at school who cares about their development and having the opportunity to do what they do best each day, according to a commentary “Make a Difference: Show Students You Care” by Gallup Education Executive Director Brandon H. Busteed in Education Week.

“Over the past two decades, our country’s leaders have done a great job building a massive accountability system around schools. What they’ve failed to do, in the meantime, is build an engagement system within them,” Busteed wrote.

New York’s school chancellor recently announced a new school ranking system that does away with school letter grades, puts less emphasis on test scores and provides an in-depth look at each school and its curriculum.

Arizona’s State Board of Education has a subcommittee looking into how to improve the Arizona A-F School Accountability system with educators statewide providing feedback. The subcommittee will meet next on Oct. 14.

What’s the difference between an A in the Arizona A-F School Accountability system and the National Blue Ribbon School designation?

“One difference is the U.S. Department of Education asked us to provide graduation rate, dropout rate, AIMS and bottom quartile data for the past five years to show consistent growth. Whereas the Arizona accountability grades are issued yearly by ADE by looking at similar data,” Cabrera said.

Also, schools were asked for information on four specific indicators of academic success – assessment results, using assessment results, sharing lessons learned and engaging families and community, Cabrera said.

“Additionally, we were asked to share the interventions we employ in the areas of English, math and reading and discuss how professional development, curriculum and instruction, and school leadership help catapult student achievement,” Cabrera said.

O’Boyle said she receives many phone calls from people trying to finding a good school for their child and she tells them, “You really need to visit the school. You need to get inside the classrooms and talk to the principal. You need to talk to some of the parents who send their kid there, and you need to meet some of the teachers. You really do have to make the decision with your own child’s needs in mind.”

As parents do their research, they should look for a school that closely aligns with their values, includes what they want for their child in terms of instruction and websites, like, can help parents in the process, Rose said.

Family engagement

On their National Blue Ribbon School applications, schools included information about community and family engagement and how they share what they’ve learned with other educators.

Education in Vail is a community effort, Rose said. Mesquite parents, staff and the surrounding community work together to create the annual Fall Festival, family movie nights and other events.

“There are volunteer coordinators in each school, and they are key in maintaining those partnerships,” Rose said.

Franklin parents sign an agreement that outlines student expectations, learn of resources available to them, receive a monthly newsletter, meet monthly with the principal, plan events, learn about resources to plan for their children’s college experience, and fund raise to provide scholarships for graduating seniors.

“Our success is attributed to our commitment to seeing every Franklin student become life-long leaders and learners. We cannot do what we do without a commitment from our students, faculty, staff, and parents,” Cabrera said. “Every person in our school community has a role to play. It truly takes a village to raise a child and we have an extremely resilient and supportive village.”

Community members, students’ families and district leaders worked together to develop Benson schools future direction for the district.

“The positive caring relationships among school personnel, students, parents, and the community create a warm welcoming school family environment,” Jansson said.

Families take part in family math and reading nights, parents and grandparents often volunteer in classrooms and have lunch with their children in the cafeteria and the school partners with the city to offer summer activities and camps.

“A few of our student and parent engagement celebrations are monthly Bobcat Rallies celebrating student success; the Principal’s reading challenge where the principal has been found on the roof dressed as a chicken, a zebra, and even a penguin; Java with Jansson is a morning coffee club for parents facilitated by the principal; and First Friday Treats is a time where school personnel share breakfast as a school family” Jansson said.

“These activities along with many other opportunities allow everyone to celebrate our success,” Jansson said. “The overarching key to the success of Benson Primary School is that everything we do positively impacts the life of every child.”

At Reid Traditional Schools Valley Academy, parents are involved in curriculum decisions, take Spalding classes to support their children’s learning at home, create events like the Fall Festival, raise funds and volunteer in the classrooms and at the school, Mitchell said.

“We were created by a group of parents, and we’ve always put an emphasis on respecting the role of parents,” Mitchell said. “They’re a big player in our school.”

During architectural planning for a new building, parents asked for a place to meet, store materials and care for younger children while working on school-related projects, so a workroom with a meeting area, computer and see-through wall to view an adjacent toddler play area was added, Mitchell said.

“We teach in a very caring and supportive manner to bring all the students up to their top academic performance,” Reid said. “Our students come from all socioeconomic and educational levels.”

Sharing what works with other educators

Principals of great schools want to share the secret to their students’ success, “because they know that what they’re doing is replicable,” O’Boyle said.

Franklin Police and Fire High School, a Beat the Odds Mentor School, helps an under-performing school by sharing resources and develop strategies.

“Franklin’s faculty and staff truly believe in the potential of every student. They go above and beyond the call of duty to help ensure student success,” Cabrera said. “Our work is never done. Everything we do revolves around student achievement.”

Franklin is the first school in the nation to offer a rigorous college readiness curriculum with a public safety program, and many schools from around the nation have toured the school to learn more about its model.

Two schools are using what they learned to start new programs. Regina Public Schools in Saskatchewan, Canada, currently offers a law
enforcement program and plans to offer a fire science program using Franklin’s model. Rock Springs High School in Wyoming sent a second team to Franklin to help them open a police and fire program.

The Arizona Charter School Association’s school success center helped train Reid Traditional School’s Valley Academy teachers and staff to analyze student assessment data and use it in the classroom, Mitchell said.

Valley Traditional School’s Valley Academy leaders and educators share what they learn through mentoring new charter operators, presenting on best practices at conferences, sharing what’s working for their special education students with the Arizona Department of Education, serving on review panels for the Arizona Charter School Association and the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools and trained district and charter school administrators and teachers in phonics methods with a federal grant.

“We really try to strengthen the entire education community with what we do,” Mitchell said.

Benson Primary shares what’s worked at conferences statewide. Observers from around the state, including the Arizona Department of Education, have come to learn more about their school-wide Title I program, special education intervention plan, Daily Math Skills lessons, and Title I reading specialist-led leveled reading groups.

For 30 minutes each day, Mesquite students take part in a Reteach and Enrich program that began at the school and has since gone district- and statewide.

“Teachers meet regularly to discuss and analyze (assessment) data, and decisions are made based on that data,” Rose said.

Students who demonstrate mastery are provided opportunities to expand on what they’ve learned, and those who did not met the standard receive extra support with different lessons to master that standard, Rose said.

Reteach and Enrich is as a major part of the Beyond Textbooks online curriculum developed by Vail School District and used by schools across Arizona and in other states, Rose said.

“We’re always looking for ways to tell our teachers what a difference they make in the world and recognize their success and expertise,” Mitchell said. “This is a really great message to our teachers that they’re valued.”