Despite changes, scores remain poor
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 21, 2006

Carrie Watters

Nearly three out of four teachers and administrators were new to Isaac Imes Elementary School last school year, a bellwether of the reform that officials hoped to spark at the second oldest school in the Glendale Elementary School District.

But few signs of improvement were visible on the state test results released earlier this month.

Principal Charlene Sigala - among the newcomers in 2005 - said improvements should start showing up on state testing in the coming years. Change requires time to take root, she said. Sigala leads a largely new and young staff in reshaping the Imes vision from a school that emphasized reaching out to its largely poor community to one that emphasizes high student achievement.

Teachers like Dana Cole, who came to the district as a first year teacher, said she feels more confident with one year of teaching under her belt.

"Going into it, I knew that it was a low-performing school and that the push was to try to get the school to improve," Cole said.

Sigala plans to spend her second year reaching out to parents, some of who balked at the dramatic changes.

But, something had to shake down at Imes.

In 2004, 4 percent of eighth-grade students met math standards on state tests. In a district where state test scores lag behind state averages, Imes' scores have been among the worst.

After one year of new management, reading scores dropped at nearly every grade level, while math scores were mixed, according to the recently released test results.

Eighth-grade students are improving in math, with 46 percent now meeting math standards.

Scores can fluctuate from year to year because different sets of students are tested. Typically, three or more years of data are needed to show a trend. And a change in curriculum can take a couple of years to show up in test scores.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Joraanstad said he was disappointed by the results but is hopeful that the changes made at the school will produce results.

While he praised former Imes teachers and administrators, he questioned whether the emphasis was more on social services at the expense of academics.

Nearly every student qualify for free or reduced lunches. About 85 percent are Hispanic and a third struggle with English.

Social services are still a key piece of operations, from a clothing closet for needy students to adult English classes. Sigala doesn't deny the need for such programs, but she doesn't want poverty to become a crutch for low achievement.

"Those needs are always going to be there. The academics has to be the focus," Sigala said.

Reform doesn't come easy. Many parents and educators were up in arms when district officials in the spring of 2005 proposed transforming Imes into a "traditional school" where students wore uniforms and the curriculum emphasized the basics.

That proposal was dropped, but change still came. Sigala and new staff were introduced. A dual language program ended. Full English immersion began.

The dual language program had taught students 50 percent of the time in Spanish and 50 percent of the time in English. Parent Rebecca Ontiveros said dual-language sounded good in theory, but she never saw results in her first-grade English-speaking son.

Still, the staffing changes prompted Ontiveros to send her son to a different school.

"I just kind of got turned off," Ontiveros said.

Sigala hopes to overcome those views as she tries to build a "cohesive energy" for improvement.

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-6934.