School is taking long look at self
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 17, 2005


Pat Kossan


At its March 28 meeting, the Arizona State Board of Education voted on plans to intervene in the everyday operations of the state's first 11 "failing" schools.

It was a historic moment for a state that once held local control of neighborhood schools as a basic commandment.

But the moment passed in a nearly empty room.

Only one of the "failing" schools sent a representative.

Avondale Elementary District Superintendent Cathy Stafford presented an eloquent defense of Lattie Coor School's principal and teachers, and the improvements under way at the West Valley school that had received a "failing" label from the state in October.

Then, as if she had a choice, Stafford graciously accepted the state's intervention.

The state ranked Lattie Coor School "underperforming" in 2002 and 2003 and "failing" in 2004. The latest review of the school was less than flattering. It outlined the state's expectations for big changes.

The report said the school must:

Shift its focus from teaching to student learning and make sure students are learning the state-mandated grade-by-grade Academic Standards.

Routinely test students and re-teach those who need extra help mastering basic skills.

Combine Lattie Coor, a fifth- and sixth-grade school, with two other schools into one K-8 campus under one principal.

Streamline teacher training, ensure teachers work as a cohesive team and concentrate on helping English-language learners catch up with their peers.

Maintain a safe campus, encourage more parent participation, and involve teachers in decisions about how money is spent at the school.

But one conclusion by state officials still makes the staff at the school cringe: When it comes to making the needed changes, state reviewers concluded that Lattie Coor's faculty and staff have "minimal capacity to meet the identified needs."

Principal Randy Watkins

Watkins sat in his office and scrambled to find his own word to describe how he felt when he read the state's description of a staff he leads, trains, hires, and, most importantly, motivates. He looked for a cautious word, settling on "unfair."

"Surprised and unfair would be OK," Watkins finally said.

Watkins wasn't surprised when Lattie Coor was named "failing" in October. He knew the formula and how to add up the progress made on student test scores. But putting "minimal capacity" and his staff's ability in the same sentence blindsided him.

"It takes a high level of professionalism and high approach to the job, caring about kids and a school full of children, to take a report like that and grow from it," Watkins said.

Yet that's just what Watkins said he and his staff will do: use the report to grow. The report came in just after the school closed for a two-week spring break. It was the latest in a series of unflattering reports the school has endured since the state first ranked it "underperforming" in 2002.

"I had a week to prepare myself mentally," Watkins said. "You're not desensitized, but you find where you can grow. You really self-reflect. It may sound canned, but it's true."

Watkins is convinced the school staff is a step ahead of the state. He read a long list of training his teachers have completed this year and said they've already lined up their lesson plans with mandated state learning standards. He's sure his staff will be celebrating when the school's AIMS test scores are released in June.

Teacher Blanca Sanchez

The state already called them under performing; then failing. Yet, Lattie Coor teachers couldn't ignore the latest description: "minimal."

"I have heard teachers say: 'I'm working 12 to 14 hours a day, I take classes, I buy materials with my own money, but I'm minimal,' " Blanca Sanchez said. "And, yes, they're angry about it."

Even if this is just one more unflattering report, each one counts, each one hurts. "We really have a huge responsibility. We shape the future. We can't become numb to that."

Teachers have spent three years working toward state-mandated goals, even if test scores haven't reflected their efforts. "It has to do with the fact that the leader at the state (education) department is test-score driven and we have to remember, whether our political leaders want to understand it or not, our children are improving."

That doesn't mean they're passing the AIMS test. This year, Sanchez had a child in her sixth-grade class who came from Mexico with a kindergartener's understanding of English. Now, that child is working at a second- to third-grade level. "That child is working hard. We're working hard to maximize his learning in English. Is it realistic that he's going to take a sixth-grade test and not fail it?"

The good news: Teachers are looking forward to working on a combined K-8 campus, something they've wanted for a long time. "How can I network with the fourth-grade teacher or the seventh-grade teacher if they're not on my campus? We're hoping we won't have kids falling through the cracks, like they did before."

Parent Mary Silva

Mary Silva hadn't seen the latest state report on her son's school. She could focus on little else until she had finished the four-page summary.

"I've been keeping up with everything in the paper," said Silva, who volunteers at the school five days a week. "I was keeping up with Mr. Watkins and I know he was just thrown into this. I'm really surprised I haven't seen this."

She returned to reading the report and apologized.

"I just keep going over this," said Silva, who got stuck on that word minimal; teachers and staff with "minimal capacity" to make necessary changes. "I'm here all the time, maybe I'm missing something somewhere. I don't get it. Maybe I'm not seeing what they're looking for."

Silva sees children engaged in the classroom and teachers attending training sessions. She hears them talking in the teachers lounge. "This strategy didn't work on this little guy, maybe this one will work better."

"We have a lot of children who need extra help and we have kids who say, 'I can get by the way I am,' " Silva said.

Silva estimates about 60 percent of parents keep in touch with their children's teachers, even if they don't have the time to come to campus. But some parents aren't always concerned enough to push, and attendance was poor at classes held during the spring break for children who needed extra help.

"That's what scares me, the kids who slip through; kids who are still struggling. How do you get them to a place where they can function and feel good about themselves?"

State official Tommie Miel

Tommie Miel is Arizona's intervention director and is convinced that no school can improve unless it takes a long, hard and honest look at itself.

"First of all, we said to all schools that we are going to have to be open and honest with each other," Miel said. "We have to be blunt enough to look at what's really there."

A committee of educators, including superintendents, charter school owners, principals and curriculum specialists from around the state discussed and examined every detail about Lattie Coor School.

"We had as many perspectives as we could," Miel said. They came to a consensus that the faculty and staff at the school had "minimal capacity to meet the identified needs."

Miel said there are teachers who say: "Look at these children, they can learn, I can make a difference, I can get them over the barriers."

Miel heard that from some Lattie Coor teachers, but others weren't that positive: "Some teachers will allow external conditions to hinder what they believe they can do for children.

"Every effort is going into making a difference at that school, from the district level to the school level. In my heart and mind, I believe the school will turn around. One of the things they can do is continue the open communication with parents and the community about student progress, what their plan is, and what direction they are going."