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Rural district beats challenges to win state’s top ranking

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Ash Fork Joint Unified School District Superintendent Seth Staples

When AIMS scores and school district letter grades were released on Aug. 4 by the Arizona Department of Education, Ash Fork Joint Unified School District was the top-ranked district, beating the leading charter school system BASIS by two points.

The letter grades are based on students’ performance on AIMS, student’ academic growth compared to last year, and significant reductions in dropout rates and a high percentage of English Language Learner reclassifications.

Rural district beats challenges to win state’s top ranking AshForkSuperintendentSethStaples

Ash Fork Joint Unified School District Superintendent Seth Staples

How did a district in rural Yavapai County whose 300 students all qualify for free and reduced lunch rise from a D-rated district in 2009-10 to the top-rated district in the state this year?

“We didn’t really know how we were supposed to do this, so we looked at the districts who were doing the best in the state,” Ash Fork Superintendent Seth Staples said.

Ash Fork used grants and other funds to improve curriculum, build strong, positive relationships between students and staff, and provide targeted teacher training.

“Programs are very important for getting people to have the right resources and the right ways of doing things, but really it’s all about the people at your district who make a difference,” Staples said.

This year, 87 percent of Ash Fork Elementary School students passed math, which means students met or exceeded the AIMS standards, and 85 percent passed reading. At Ash Fork Middle School, 75 percent of students passed math, 86 percent passed reading, 51 percent passed writing and 75 percent passed science.

Last year, teachers focused on improving all students’ math skills, and teachers will concentrate on developing students’ writing abilities this year, said Staples, who taught in the district before becoming superintendent.

“With the new standards, we’re highlighting writing and getting training ready,” Staples said. “We didn’t do as great in writing as we’d like to.”

The district’s high number of special education students – 26 percent, which is more than twice the average for most districts – also presented a challenge.

Special education students AIMS scores are included in each school’s AIMS totals.

“Our special education students just learn differently,” Staples said. “A student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) is there for a reason. That’s how they can learn and adjust to regular instruction. We have teachers who care about it.”

Now, Ash Fork is in the process of finding schools who are excelling at the new standards and building relationships with them “to keep going forward with our progress,” Staples said.

“We want to stay up there. We don’t want to be that flash in the pan,” Staples said.

Q: What were some of challenges Ash Fork has faced?

A: The first major challenge didn’t have anything to do with the curriculum. It had to do with the students believing in themselves, and the teachers believing in themselves.

Rural district beats challenges to win state’s top ranking BarrySharpAshForkHP

Ash Fork Joint Unified School District governing board president Barry Sharp works with a student.

It started with the school board who believed in the administrative team to make the right decisions. They said we hired you to improve this school so we are not going to stand in your way. We trust you.

From that point, we could really move forward. Our teachers did what we asked of them and started seeing success so they started believing in what they were doing.

We started talking about higher expectations, and the kids really started running with it.

Three years ago if you were to ask our high school kids what do you want to do after high school, the best answer you usually got was “Well, I would like to be a dental assistant, or I would like to work in a vet’s office.”

Now when you ask kids, it’s “I want to be an orthodontist, or I want to be an architect, or I want to be a veterinarian.”

It’s great to see our kids are starting to believe that they can achieve these things.

Q: What did Ash Fork do from an instructional perspective to increase students’ success?

A: We had good teachers, happy kids, but we weren’t very strategic, we weren’t very focused, and we weren’t very good at interpreting data to help our students become successful.

Dr. Charlotte Wing with Wings Educational Services did an instructional profile of our district, visiting every classroom twice. Then she wrote a report on what areas we were doing well and poorly so we could analyze it and establish goals to improve.

We also surveyed parents, students, staff and administration on perceptions. From there, we established our teachers didn’t feel they had a whole lot of guidance as far as curriculum was concerned. Secondly, we had a problem with students’ motivation to improve and to do well at school.

Vail School District’s Beyond Textbooks gave us a guide – a way to know that what we are teaching in the time allotted and how our kids were learning.

Tracking posters in every classroom have kids’ names on one side and standards for the quarter on another so students can see which standards they have mastered, need to be reassessed on, retaught or enriched.

We saw big gains our first year using Beyond Textbooks – earning a C in 2010-2011. The next year, we missed an A by one point. In 2012-2013, we had an A rating.

We wanted to make our lessons as rigorous as possible. This year, we had huge growth in our lowest scoring 25 percent of students. We also focus on helping kids who meet the standards exceed them.

This year, 53 percent of elementary students exceeded AIMS math standards. In our middle school, 41 percent of students exceeded math standards.

Q: How do you think your efforts to build strong relationships between students and staff contributed?

A: Another thing we started at the same time we implemented Beyond Textbooks was the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program. That three-day training addressed morale and built relationships strong enough to attain the performance we were looking for.

We started implementing Capturing Kids’ Hearts, and it was amazing to see how kids wanted to do better. Kids were coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I went from a 60 percent to an 85 percent, Mr. Staples,” on our benchmark testing in Galileo.

Our discipline went from roughly 120 referrals in the first five weeks of school before Capturing Kids’ Hearts to six referrals in the first five weeks after the program.

It made teaching fun again, because it’s about relationships, getting to know your kids, learning what’s going on and motivating them.

Q: Were there any other contributing factors?

A: Every third- through eighth-grade student has their own district supplied iPad, and almost every high school student has their own district supplied laptop.

Rural district beats challenges to win state’s top ranking AshForkBarrySharpStudentIpadsHP

Ash Fork Joint Unified School District governing board president Barry Sharp watches an elementary student use a district-issued iPad in class.

We piloted a new e-textbook last year in our math class. I saw a student who has always struggled in math – he has an IEP –raising his hand and helping other students. It’s such a powerful tool that shows different ways of learning things.

Q: You made a point at the Arizona Department of Education news conference to mention that district schools are the only choice students in your community have. Why did you raise that point?

A: At the Arizona Department of Education press conference last week, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal was talking about school choice, saying there are more choices than ever.

When I gave my speech, I said in Ash Fork parents don’t have 20 choices. There are no private schools. There are no charter schools.

I think we forget about rural Arizona when we’re talking about students’ success. We forget about those parents who are just trying to survive and don’t have time to sit at a computer to look up the best schools in a district and make sure their kids get there.

What’s going to happen to those kids who need it the most? Are they going to keep attending underperforming schools?

School choice is the new catchphrase that everyone likes to talk about at the Legislature.

Hold public schools accountable, build us some bridges to make it happen and we’ll do it, but don’t keep dogging on us.

When a district does a magnet school – which is like a charter – they knock it out of the park performance-wise.

When you let us do our stuff, then we’re going to rock it.

Q: What is Ash Fork focusing on next?

A: My goal is to make career and technical education a high school graduation requirement. We’re not quite there yet.

Sixty five percent of our kids receive certification and college credit through our JTED program.

In our welding program, we’re really big on job placement. On field trips to all the local welding facilities, we ask the managers what are you looking for, what do you need and what do you want?

We’re in the process of coming up with a district test for our welding students that gives them certification and also hits on what our welding community needs.

We added a lineman program this year, and several kids are in it. As a lineman you can make $50,000 to $75,000 a year.

Students see what they can do and what they can accomplish.

We love to see students leave here making more than us, and we’re seeing it all the time.