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Arizona’s top superintendent on success after K-12, what makes an ‘A’ school


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Denton Santarelli HP2

When Denton Santarelli, Ed. D., speaks, people listen. Not only is he American Association of School AdministratorsArizona Superintendent of the Year, but his district also boasts the highest graduation rate in the state.

Student success after high school begins in elementary school with collaboration among students, staff and parents, said Santarelli, superintendent of Peoria Unified School District.

Arizona’s top superintendent on success after K-12, what makes an 'A' school Dr.DentonSantarelliWithDevneyAndCagneyGeorgeAtSundanceHP

Peoria Unified School District Superintendent Denton Santarelli with Devney and Cagney George of Sundance Elementary at a preschool art show at the district office.

“We know that success depends on students’ hopes and their aspirations, but, that said, we also infuse this sense of reality,” Santarelli said. “If I really want to be a firefighter, what does it take? What educational experiences do I need? What kind of classes do I need? What post-secondary things have to happen?”

Santarelli also is a member of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, a group of superintendents of high-performing school districts who are working together to improve student achievement.

He has served Peoria Unified for the past 32 years as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, K-12 administrator and assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent in December 2007.

“We know how important it is that students understand the relevance behind what they’re doing and how it will help them in college and career,” Santarelli said.

Santarelli is also part of the task force rethinking the state’s A-F letter grade system for schools, and said he thinks the current system is too narrow and needs to include more of what parents expect.

Despite the challenges facing education in Arizona, Santarelli said he sees plenty of opportunity.

“My hope is that business, education and our elected officials can come together and craft a meaningful vision and support system for the future for the children of Arizona,” Santarelli said.

Q: What are some of the greatest challenges and opportunities in education that Arizona schools face today?

A: There’s a huge disconnect that is occurring not just in Arizona, but I think it’s magnified in Arizona, in relation to support for public education.

Everybody talks about the importance of education, but the facts are that Arizona is ranked fifth in the country in poverty and has the second largest gap between the rich and the poor.

The challenge is how do we meet the needs of all students. Almost 30 percent are coming to us from homes of poverty. There’s a growing gap between those that have and those that have not.

How do you meet all those needs in an environment where we’ve had to endure the deepest cuts in education in the country? We know there’s been a need to tighten belts due to the great recession.

There is a disconnect between escalating expectations, diminishing resources and a growing gap between those who have the ability to come to school prepared and those who are coming from disadvantaged situations. That’s the challenge.

Add to that, the teacher shortage in Arizona. Last year, there were over 1,000 classrooms taught by substitutes. We know that number is going to be greater this year. We know the pipeline of those entering the field of education in our state colleges is diminishing. How are we going to address that?

We all know that the number one factor in student success is the quality of the teacher that stands before those students each and every day. How do we support and sustain that in an environment that is certainly challenging for all?

With that, I think there are some great opportunities.

We have the beginning of a new legislative session, a new governor, we have this lawsuit that is out there that basically spells out that money that should have been going to education needs to go to education.

Instead of focusing on where can we cut to get through the year, we should look at how we can fund what we expect will be important in a sustainable way for decades to come.

Q: Peoria Unified has a high graduation rate. What are some ways district educators help students succeed and meet state graduation requirements?

A: Our five-year graduation rate is 95 percent. We take that very seriously. We know that their futures are dependent upon that diploma. If they do not graduate, that closes doors for them and, therefore, opportunities.

Some fundamental things we put in place are directed at making sure that all students in our system, regardless of which demographic they enter our schools from, have the support they need.

We know that doesn’t happen without really talented, dedicated teachers and staff members. Our staff is obviously top notch.

We start at the elementary level. We have a program called MyLife that helps students understand what they’re good at and continues to expand on their awareness of career opportunities that align with their skill sets. Most importantly, a plan is put together for students.

Oftentimes, people think of these things happening at high school, but this really starts in Peoria at the elementary level.

All seventh and eighth grade students participate in a course called Technology, Life and Careers, and a lot of that work occurs there.

The transition from elementary school to high school is important. We know that a high proportion of students drop out that freshman year. When you look at national statistics, programs that are most successful invest a lot in that bridge between elementary and high school, and we have a number of programs to help students successfully transition from eighth to ninth grade.

Assisting with this notion of relevance, we have a career and technical education program that we think helps create linkages for our students along with athletics, extracurricular and the arts for this robust experience.

Also, we are on a block schedule, which is somewhat unique these days, and increases rigor. We have 28 graduation requirements, which is above the state level of 22, and students have 32 opportunities to meet those requirements.

When you have more opportunities, particularly in the high school years, you have a better chance of finding that match that is interesting and where you can be successful.

Q: Peoria Unified’s partnership with Grand Canyon University for the Medical, Engineering and Technology Professional Academy at Peoria High School helps students earn up to a year of college credit while still in high school. What led to that program and the district’s career and technical education offerings?

A: While our career and technical education is strong, I thought there was a gap specific to four-year college experiences.

Kids going into some of the CTE courses were often looking at a two-year college experience, military or some sort of job training after they left, yet a high number of our students go on to a four-year college.

We know that the cost of college these days is becoming almost impossible for some students, because they can’t afford it.

How can we prepare kids so that they get college credit while they’re with us? That’s economically attractive to students and parents. How do we prepare them with the job skills that will allow them to make money while they’re on their educational journey?

By creating this partnership with Grand Canyon University, particular to the Medical, Engineering and Technology Professional Academy, we created certification programs that will allow graduates to make a livable wage and also continue their education.

We identified those career fields after extensive research and work with West Valley partners in identifying gaps in the market.

This connection with AdvancED and business and industry is really the future of education. How can we continue to ratchet up that partnership so that the experiences our students are receiving are authentic?

It’s one thing to learn from a textbook in a classroom and do a lot of labs, but it’s another thing when you bring in professionals who are doing this on a daily basis.

There are certain demographics within our system and every system that are underrepresented in particular to college going. We want to make sure that we’re making these opportunities available to as many students as possible. By placing this program on the campus of Peoria High School, which is right in the heart of the City of Peoria, we believe that we are enhancing access.

Q: You’re part of the task force rethinking the state’s A-F letter grade system for schools. What makes a school an A-rated school?

A: The best person to ask that of is a parent. I think the current system is too narrow and does not currently reflect what we know our parents expect from our schools.

The notion of expanding that A-F system is timely, and I applaud the State Board of Education for taking a look at this. A system that encompasses a number of things makes sense.

Obviously student achievement has to be part of that, including academic growth, measuring systems that help close the achievement gap, and graduation rates. It also should include some indicators of how prepared our students are for college and career when they leave.

One of the areas that is so important to parents and school staff that we often don’t hear about is school environment. There’s got to be some indicator tied to safe, healthy and nurturing school environments.

There are some great models across the country that are starting to emerge, and Arizona has a wonderful opportunity to be a leader.

(The interview was edited for length and clarity.)