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EV builds on strengths

Thu., Feb. 3, 2011

The East Valley School District’s board of directors is considering a major overhaul in its pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade education system. Much like many private schools, students in those grades will attend community schools through the eighth grade and the district’s two middle schools will be closed. There are also plans in the works for a middle level learning center for students who have shown mastery in their subjects and for those needing extra help.

Some of the plans rely on a $33 million bond.

The board may consider a resolution Tuesday to put that bond on the ballot April 25. It will need a supermajority of 60 percent to pass.

Q. What is the plan in your own words?

A. What I’ve been directed to do is to develop a plan to move the district to a PK-8 system. There are two paths to that. The first path is with a bond. Right now, based on all the numbers we have and everything we’ve looked at and all the due diligence, it looks like about a $33.75 million bond. That bond would allow us to add about 40 classrooms to the district, four competitive-sized gyms and renovate all of our elementary schools.

Q. That’s just on the facilities side. Academically?

A. Academically, there have been several things happening at several different levels. The first thing that’s been happening is at the secondary level. There’s been an awful lot of work going on in the last year at our middle schools. There’s been a lot of work that is setting up to align the curriculum so the kids have more options as they enter high school.

Last year we completely overhauled the math department. The math teachers at the secondary level led that charge, they really took charge of it and they really are the ones who said “this is what our kids need.”

This year we seeing a very pro-active stance with mathematics and we’re seeing more and more opportunities for kids to take advanced placement and higher level courses at the high school.

So that’s one strand. The other strand is that we’re working toward a more robust career and technical education program.

John Savage has now stepped out of his role as vice principal (at East Valley High School) and is spending full time working on vocational programming. He’s actually now housed at East Valley Middle School. He is working on a variety of programs to improve the real connection to the work to work.

Then we have another group of folks who are studying right now what a performing arts strand might look like. They are doing their research and they are meeting and they are talking. That’s not moving as quickly as some folks would like, but it’s in the planning phases. That’s what’s happening at the secondary level.

At the elementary level, and actually at every level, we’ve formed professional learning communities. We need some more work with those, we need some more polish in some places, but the professional learning communities are creating a platform for us to think about how we would teach differently. We’ve got some amazing teachers and how can we use their energies to improve education throughout the system? That’s a long way of saying how we get there from the academic standpoint is we get there by creating systems where teachers talk and collaborate and work together and where we define a common set of outcomes for our kids which we haven’t had for a long time.

We’re talking about learning, we’re talking about achievement, we’re talking about student success throughout the system. If this process has caused nothing else, it’s caused us to do those things.

Q. How will a PK-8 system work?

A. What came out of the research and what came out of all of the work that was done were two things really.

There was this desire for these safe, rather intimate community-centered schools. The idea was that you would have these rather small K-8 schools that almost harkens back to the old days of the one-room school house.

There’s also a good body of research out there that says you have to have a certain amount of collaboration and energy and resources to get the full benefit, for students to get the full benefit of school. Actually, there’s some fairly recent research that says for kids who have some advantage that larger schools may actually be better – financial advantage. Kids who are middle-class to high socio-economic tend to do better in schools that are a little larger.

What we believe is we’ve got to create these systems where there are enough teachers to give kids truly a choice and for the teachers to work together. And so these PK-8s where we would have smaller class sizes but more adults. They would be bigger schools, although under our current estimate they would be about the size of Trent and Skyview/CCS (Continuous Curriculum School) right now. They’re not going to be that much larger and they are going to have three more grades.

When we looked at that we said, ‘all right, now we’ve got the best of both worlds.’ We’ve got these community-centered schools with no transitions where we can create a culture around learning. We’ve got an opportunity for parents to keep their child in a school for eight years, or nine years if you count kindergarten, I guess, to not have to worry about moving.

The downside of that, and the thing that people are very unnerved about and really upset about is this idea that – and I don’t want to discount this in any way – but this idea that kindergartners and eighth graders can’t be housed on the same campus, that we can’t put little kids and larger kids together.

What I want to assure people of is that the schools will be designed, from a physical standpoint, to provide that separation when it makes sense. We build our middle schools right now to separate our sixth graders from our eighth graders. This is a proven model that works in a lot of places.

What really is probably most disturbing about this argument, is this sort of painting of our middle level kids as these little hoodlums who can’t be trusted to be great role models and great citizens. This idea that they are just going to be running amok creating chaos is really kind of beating up on a group of kids who by and large do a really good job. And that’s sad.

The overriding concern is “I don’t want my kindergartner around my eighth-grader.” But yet, when I talk to eighth-graders and I say “Well, so you’d go down and pick on kindergartners?” “Well, no, no, no, I wouldn’t.” “Well, you’ve got friends who would do that?” “Oh, no, no, my friends wouldn’t.” So, what’s the problem? Well, they’re going to hear some cuss words. Well, they might, but you don’t think fifth-graders are cussing?

I really think it’s a legitimate concern but we can deal with it. I think we are not giving our kids enough credit that they can’t. They will be able to manage their behavior in a responsible fashion.

Q. What is the middle level learning center?

A. We’ve looked at this we believe this to be a pretty unique innovation in this thinking.

We have teachers who have been able to move about three or four times as many students to a place of excellence as we have students who are not succeeding. We have well over 500 kids who are truly at the top end, as opposed to about 135-140 who are at the lower end.

We have got to create a system where these kids can get something that’s a little more than what’s offered in the traditional system.

The concept of the middle level learning center is that you could offer some really high-tech labs. We can’t put a really nice fully operating chemistry or laser lab or something in every school.

The idea is that you would have these opportunities for some enhanced learning for kids who have demonstrated they basically have the middle level skills, the basic skills.

On the other end we have kids who are giving it their all and they’re just not quite where they need to be. The idea would be that this center could also provide some enrichment activities for these students. Whether that’s music or arts or whether that’s something that’s a little bit different, we don’t know.

That’s something we have to talk to teachers, we have to talk with parents, we have to talk to kids and we’ve got to figure out what is it that will grab those kids and make it worth doing those extra 10 math problems so they are going to get this reward.

The real elegance of this, assuming we can pull it off in the way we think we can – the numbers at this point dictate that we can – is that at some portion of every school week and hopefully a couple of times a week, teachers would find themselves in a situation where a large portion of their class is not there. That allows them the opportunity to provide some either really high-tech enrichment to kids who need it or some really structured and sound remediation to kids who need it.

This is fairly simple concept, but it’s a fairly complex idea in the implementation. We know the outline but the actual details will have to be worked out as we see what our children need and what the interests and desires are.

Q. Why are you doing this?

A. We’ve run three bonds. The buildings in the East Valley School District are falling down. They simply are.

We’ve got an incredible maintenance and custodial staff and those folks keep the buildings looking like they are operating in great shape.

You know, the other day the doors froze shut at Mountain View and we couldn’t get the kids in and out.

It’s not an issue of “this would be nice to have.” We’re at the point where this is what we’re going to have to have. When we started talking about what the community wanted, we didn’t frame it in the context of a facility; we framed it in the context of “what does the community want for the education of their children?” We started by looking at where we may not be serving children or where we may be under-serving them.

What we found was our strengths and weaknesses. Out of that grew this idea that we have an opportunity to do something that is really, really good for students and families. That we have an opportunity to really change the way that students in the East Valley School District receive their education and prepare for life.

Why are we doing it? We’re doing it because we have an obligation to do the best thing we can do for our children and I believe that this is the best thing for our children right now.

We were 126 votes away from passing the last bond, and it would be a lot easier to go in and just pass the bond and maintain the status quo. Our kids aren’t doing horribly; in fact our kids are doing pretty well. We’ve got more kids succeeding than are failing. We’ve got good teachers. It’s a pretty easy job, now that I’ve got three years in it I can do a lot of it without too much effort anymore. I don’t have to hurt myself to do the job, generally speaking, that we’ve got things lined out. But then all we would have is the same school system that we believe is under-serving 68 percent of our kids either on the top end or the bottom end.

I don’t know how we can do it. I don’t know how we can be satisfied with mediocrity.

Q. If the bond fails, what do you do?

A. Well, then we do it anyway. Then we move forward.

We’ve lost 750 kids more or less in the last 10 years in our brick and mortar. We’ve got to close a school. Somebody’s just got to step up and say, “Look folks, demographics have changed, enrollment has changed, this is not the East Valley that was here 10 years ago.” Something has got to change.

If we ran a bond to fix two middle schools, again, what we would have is one middle school that had about 550 kids in it and is scheduled to have the northwest freeway cut through the playgrounds.

We’d have another middle school with about 300 kids in it that is located in an area where we see no midterm growth. Ten years from now, eight years from now when we get sewer and water and waste treatment and all that, that area may grow, but it’s probably not going to happen in the next eight to 10 years. So, you run a bond to do that and you’ve still got elementary schools that are out of balance with population and are physically collapsing, that are breaking down.

What are the other options? Some folks have said, “Let’s build a new state-of-the-art middle school.” We could build a new state-of-the-art middle school that would cost us about $33 million.

Then we would have one middle school with over 800 kids in it. We would have used all of our bond in capacity we would not have maximized our state matching money, in fact we probably couldn’t build it without state matching money. That’s a little bit of an issue.

Q. Are you closing any elementary schools?

A. There won’t be any buildings closed in the elementary – CCS would occupy all of Skyview, but Skyview Elementary would cease to exist as its own entity.

Q. Why will this create better learning?

A. The change in and of itself, if we just change grades, which is what we’re stuck on, won’t improve learning. What we’re doing is we’re creating a catalyst where change will allow us to get rid of some our old habits that we’re stuck in and will empower our teachers to really think differently about teaching.

The grade configuration is not the magic bullet. It is not the thing that will fix all, but it will create an opportunity for us to build on our strengths and address our weaknesses by throwing away those parts of the system that we’re kind of locked into now.

Q. Do you have any final thoughts?

A. The only thing that I would ask people to do if they are not sure about this is to step back from their own bias and prejudice and look at what this has the potential to do for children and what it could mean for our community. Set aside, whether it’s a dislike for school whether it’s a dislike for me, whether it’s a dislike for government, just step back and look honestly at that.

If folks reach the decision after stepping back and looking at it that they don’t believe it’s good then I absolutely respect that decision and I applaud that. But right now, I just ask that people step back and look at it from that perspective.

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