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Beyond Textbooks helps schools boost achievement, adapt to new standards


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

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As Arizona schools seek to boost student achievement and adapt curriculum to Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, many are turning to a homegrown approach pioneered in Southern Arizona showing the kind of success that is attracting the interest of school districts outside the state.

Beyond Textbooks, the online resource and collaborative community created by teachers and district leaders in the Vail Unified School District, is now being used by 86 partners: 77 Arizona school districts – or nearly one-third of all districts in the state, as well as eight charter schools and an independent preschool.

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A Queen Creek Elementary School teacher does enrichment activities with students who have already mastered a concept to increase the depth of their learning. Photo courtesy Queen Creek Elementary School

Queen Creek Unified, the 4,900-student district in southeastern Maricopa County and the fourth highest-ranked district in the state by the Arizona Department of Education, is one of them.

“We were an A district before using Beyond Textbooks. BT has given us a more systematic approach to data,” said Tom Lindsey, the district’s superintendent.

Lindsey was one of 400 educators who gathered to learn more about Beyond Textbooks and share how the resource has helped their students and district at a statewide Beyond Textbooks conference held in February in Tucson. These types of professional gatherings are an added benefit of being a Beyond Textbooks partner.

In addition to adapting Beyond Textbooks resources to create lessons, plan activities, and quiz students, Queen Creek Elementary School teachers have incorporated the Beyond Textbooks strategy of meeting by grade level weekly to analyze students’ test data and gauge understanding.

Teachers use that data to plan more in-depth learning experiences for students who mastered the standard, re-teach those who need more help, and determine what changes may be necessary to improve how they teach the concept the next year, explained Queen Creek Elementary School Principal Erika Copeland.

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Second grade teachers at Queen Creek Elementary School during a meeting to discuss student test data, re-teaching and enrichment. Photo courtesy Queen Creek Unified School District

Fee-based, shared resources like Beyond Textbooks make sense for districts which have seen reduced state funding for soft capital items like textbooks since 2008, while new, more rigorous standards have been implemented and accountability for student outcomes has increased.

“Vail was spending upwards of $55 per student on textbooks 10 years ago. It’s down to $3 per student now with Beyond Textbooks,” said Justin Chesebrough, director of Beyond Textbooks.

But affordable curriculum materials are only part of the appeal of Beyond Textbooks. A playbook for increased student achievement from Vail, a district rated number-one by the Arizona Department of Education for two years in a row, strong relationships with other participating districts and ongoing professional development are keys to Beyond Textbooks’ success, Chesebrough said.

“Why don’t we do that on our own? It requires leadership, collaboration, and time,” said Dr. Perry Berry, curriculum director for Queen Creek. “We don’t have the type of manpower to develop this, and I would assume many districts are in the same situation.”

While many districts are in their first year or two with Beyond Textbooks, it is a concept that Vail has been working to develop and improve for years. It is also what the district credits for its high state ranking.

“Ten years ago, our district (Vail) was actually the lowest performing school district in southern Arizona,” Chesebrough said. “We leaned on a lot of folks for help back then – Flowing Wells, Continental School District, WestEd consulting group.”

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Kindergarteners work on an activity in class in Benson Unified School District. Photo courtesy Benson Unified School District

After making dramatic improvements to student achievement in their own district, Vail wanted to share what they had learned, what their teachers had created, and move from binders of information to a computerized interactive system, said Debbie Hedgepeth, Vail assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development.

At a leadership retreat in 2008, Vail’s director of technology suggested creating an online system that included lesson plans and calendars for when certain concepts should be taught, said Hedgepeth. It also included a means for teachers to share materials online, breaking down barriers of time and distance, Hedgepeth said.

When Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker brought together teachers, administrators and district members to discuss it, they realized teachers could share across a grade level, the district, and the state, Hedgepeth said.

“Now, we want to be that good neighbor to help other folks around the state,” Chesebrough said. “We’re really passionate about helping kids in Arizona.”

For Ash Fork Unified School District with 300 students in rural Yavapai County and one teacher per grade level, Beyond Textbooks was “a game changer,” Superintendent Seth Staples said.

“We went from a D to an A in three years,” Staples said of the district, now ranked ninth in the state. “The whole reason we’re doing Beyond Textbooks is to empower our students.”

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Vail Unified School District’s Debbie Hedgepeth, standing near projection screen, listens as educators with Winslow Unified School District discuss their goals and action plans during a Beyond Textbooks Data Dig in Prescott in October.

Partners said regular professional collaboration and learning experiences also add value to being a Beyond Textbooks partner. In fall 2013, for example, schools from Kingman, Miami, Winslow, Florence and Parker gathered with Beyond Textbooks staff in Prescott to analyze their student growth scores, set measurable goals, and create action plans to achieve them.

Hedgepeth said schools and districts all want to achieve an A rating from the Arizona Department of Education, but “it’s hard to do that if you don’t fully understand how you’re being graded or rated. You need to specifically know where to put your energy and effort.”

While Beyond Textbooks gives direction on where to go with teaching, local teachers determine how to teach. Lindsey Popa, third-grade teacher at Ash Fork Elementary School, said that is important because of “our demographics and special ed.”

As with many districts, cost of participation in Beyond Textbooks was a factor for Ash Fork. The annual cost is $3,000, plus an $8 per student fee, Chesebrough said.

Before a school or district partners with Beyond Textbooks, Chesebrough said he and other Beyond Textbooks staff meet with the superintendent, curriculum director, principals and teacher leaders to show them what the program is. If they decide to become a partner, Beyond Textbooks staff provides a two-day leadership retreat on key components and create an implementation program specific to the district’s needs. Then, program staff train every teacher on key components and has them work hands-on with the online resources, Chesebrough said. Districts can choose to pay for ongoing training.

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Winslow Unified School District educators and leaders made a poster of the things they are proud of about Winslow Junior High School during a Beyond Textbooks Data Dig in Prescott in October.

This year, Beyond Textbook’s first partner – Benson Unified School District – surpassed Vail to become the Arizona school district ranked number-one by the Arizona Department of Education.

“If you would have told me a year ago we’d be number one, I would have said you’re crazy,” said Benson Superintendent Dr. David Woodall. “In Benson, we wanted to have A schools. We had gotten to where we were a really good middle B district.”

Benson learned the hard way it couldn’t use part of the Beyond Textbooks plan, but rather had to “apply it all with fidelity,” Woodall said.

“We went through a real learning curve,” Woodall said. “Vail has 12,000 students, we have 1,200. Vail has a full-time curriculum director, and we have part-time curriculum person. Lots of differences. They had achievement coaches, we didn’t. They were on Apple platforms and we were on PCs.”

One aspect that helped Benson boost student achievement was a Beyond Textbooks strategy called daily math skills  – a scripted 20-minute math practice of basic math facts at particular grade levels –  and an incentive program for students, said Tara Finch, director of special education and principal of Benson Middle School.

“When the entire class passes a skill, they earn a reward,” Finch said. “It starts with stickers and ends with a pizza party.”

Re-teach and enrich are part of the regular class schedule, and students who need more help receive “intense intervention” in a weeklong session during the two-week fall and spring breaks, Finch said.

As news has spread about Beyond Textbooks, schools in 40 other states have expressed interest in becoming partners, but before accepting any out-of-state partners, Beyond Textbooks will seek approval from the Vail USD governing board, Chesebrough said.

Currently, Beyond Textbooks is developing more pre-school resources that partner districts are using now, planning a special education summit, and developing more training on depth of knowledge from partner-driven feedback, Chesebrough said.