66 schools in county rated underperforming
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 25, 2006

Pat Kossan and Matt Dempsey

About 30,000 Valley kids attend schools where students did not make much academic progress over the previous year, according to the state's annual school rankings released Tuesday.

Although the state ranked a record number of schools as performing above average, 66 Maricopa County schools were labeled "underperforming."

But many schools that slide onto the underperforming list don't seem to stay there long. Each year, the state sends these lagging schools teams of volunteer educators and Arizona Department of Education staff members who help reshape classrooms and retrain teachers.

The schools also are motivated by fear. Any district school listed as underperforming three consecutive years is labeled "failing" and faces a likely state takeover. A charter school can be shut down.

Combined, the state intervention and the fear of takeover can inspire a school to improve quickly.

For example, 40 of the schools that were on the underperforming list last year moved up and off the list this year, though others took their place.

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne credits his staff with creating a workable and affordable system to push more schools into doing a better job.

"We've proven we can help underperforming schools," said Horne, who is campaigning for a second four-year term in a race against Democrat Jason Williams. "The system we have put in place has been successful beyond anyone's most optimistic expectations."

A record number of schools reached the level of "performing plus" and beyond. That big move was helped by a small increase in AIMS scores in 2006 and changes in the formula the state uses to rank schools.

The formula gave schools credit for even tiny improvements in AIMS scores by individual students, even if the child did not pass the test. State officials said this change helped to push an additional 175 schools into the performing-plus category.

Roosevelt Elementary District had six schools named to the underperforming list. Four of those schools have been on the list for two years.

A success story
But Roosevelt also triumphed. Its "failing" Ignacio Conchos School climbed
into "performing," the highest rank the school has reached in four years.
The state took over the school last year and appointed 21-year Principal Art
Zitt to turn it around.

Zitt said his secret is carefully selecting teachers, culling through
transcripts and resumes and calling references. New curriculum and classroom
materials and staff training mean nothing without strong, smart teachers, he

"We had a pretty deep hole to climb out of," Zitt said Tuesday. "It was
critical the classrooms were filled with quality teachers."

Zitt said half of the teachers who turned around Conchos had less than three
years of experience.

Some failures
The state ranked eight schools as failing. Among them were three charter
schools, the first charters in the state to make the failing list.

Charters are operated by private agencies or businesses using state money.

Now, the state will give the charter schools a last review and could allow
them to remain open under scrutiny or be shut down by January.

Patricia Bassett operates six charter schools, including the 10-year-old
west Phoenix Omega Academy, ranked a failing school this year.

She said her biggest problem is getting kids to attend their kindergarten
through fourth-grade classes. She said she struggles to get parents to buy

"You can hold older kids accountable, but for little kids it's not a kid
problem," she said.