Working together to make fix
Arizona Republic
Mar. 13, 2005
From parents to state officials, help comes to Coor School

Staff, parents at Lattie Coor School and a state improvement team are working feverishly to help the school climb out of the state's "failing" category. Here are the stories of four key players. The principal:

Randy Watkins

Randy Watkins knew how to calculate the state formula, and he knew he would have bad news for his teachers when rankings were made public in October

"I could see how hard they were working. I could see how sincere they were," he said.

His biggest concern was keeping up his teachers' morale: "They have to want to come to work every day. I thought we would take it on as a challenge. I had to get my teachers to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was convinced this would become the model school to look at for getting out of the failing label."

Despite the blow, Watkins believes in the state process of making schools accountable for ensuring that every child learns.

"The downside is the heavy media and scrutiny," Watkins said. "A lot of people who work here live in the surrounding communities and run into parents. There was a time you held your head up high because you were a teacher. Now, it's, 'Oh. You work at Lattie Coor, that failing school.' "

Watkins' immediate goals are to improve teamwork at the school and help the staff build lesson plans that are aligned with the state's grade-by-grade standards. "This is the approach I'd take if we were (ranked as) excelling," he said.

To Watkins, the state team sent out to determine the school's fate, as well as his own, seemed friendly.

"They were very positive and complimentary of the staff," Watkins said.

The teacher: Blanca Sanchez

It was Blanca Sanchez's older son who read about her school in the morning's newspaper. " 'Mom, it says here your school is failing.' It stunned us. It was hurtful. Right away, I took it as a reflection on me. I don't think the state knows how those labels hurt."

The following day, Sanchez's superintendent told teachers that the failing rank was based on standardized test scores.

"How in the world will they pass these tests if Spanish is dominant at home?" Sanchez wonders aloud. "It takes seven years to learn a language."

In Arizona, English learners must take all tests in English, and the state counts their scores in the ranking formula after three years in an Arizona school. "So if our kids only have three years, that's part of the answer," she said.

Teachers turned their anger and tears into determination, teamwork and more focused lesson plans. "We came together and said, 'This is not going to stand.' "

By the time the state sent out a team to examine Lattie Coor, she was more than ready. "We're not fighting, we're inviting anyone to come and see what we're doing out here."

Sanchez said she was disappointed in the team, whose members didn't appear to be knowledgeable about the school, the community, or her 24 sixth-graders, many of whom are English learners. "I felt they didn't know us."

Sanchez can't imagine the state intervening in a dramatic way, such as replacing the school's new principal, who has already hired six new teachers. "Whatever they want to do, we're ready. If they want to come in and teach us a better way, they're welcomed," Sanchez said.

The parent: Mary Silva

When Mary Silva heard the state ranked Lattie Coor as failing, she increased the number of days she volunteered at her youngest son's school from three days a week to five.

"I could not believe that," Silva said of the failing label. "All my five children have come through this school district. The teachers have been supportive and helped them all the time. I was angry, because I didn't understand the labeling system. I just don't think our children at this campus are failing."

She wasn't alone. Mothers and fathers throughout the community were stricken by the news.

"How was that possible? We were just, in some ways, speechless," Silva said. "Then we began comparing notes and trying to figure out what we could do to help the teachers out."

Some parents realized that they needed to be asking more questions, she said.

Silva said more parents began attending monthly meetings where they learned how to help their children practice reading and math skills at home. By the second half of the year, Silva had seen a difference.

"I noticed with the children how they're improving," she said, calling them more curious and more engaged. Now, Silva refuses to worry about state intervention plans or whether the principal will be replaced.

"Our teachers are so outstanding, I can't see that they can't step up to what's expected of them," she said.

The state official: Tommie Miel Tommie Miel was a classroom teacher, principal and principal coach in Phoenix school districts before she began directing how the state will intervene in failing schools. She was cautious about what she said about Lattie Coor and preferred using the word "collaboration" to "intervention."

"You don't go into a school and say, 'Let me show you how its done,' " Miel said. "The effort for the turnaround is already there in the school."

Miel's job was to review Lattie Coor's state-mandated School Improvement Plan and see it was producing results. "To see what's working, what's not working, and trying to fix what is not," she said.

"The site visit was just data gathering; we listened to what they had to say. We talked to them about the impact of their School Improvement Plan. It had them looking at (student test) data and looking at themselves. It had them beginning to make decisions based on data. They are doing some benchmark assessments, which are tests that let them see where their students are quarterly."

Miel said the timetable as to when Lattie Coor will hear about the state's intervention is not clear.

"We want it to be beneficial and right the first time," she said. "If it takes a little extra time, it won't bother me."

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