Dynamic school picks up the pace
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 16, 2006

'At risk' facility shows success

Richard de Uriarte

Whenever people talk about the benefits of school district consolidation, I think of Wilson Elementary School District, made up of a single school.

Whenever we lament how low-income, minority students cannot succeed, cannot compete with children of privilege and affluence, I point to the Wilson experience.

Whenever teachers complain that Hispanic parents just don't support their kids at school, or even show up for parents night, I suggest they apply to Wilson. This is a school district that is beating the odds.

By any measure, Wilson is "at risk." No less than 94 percent of its students qualify for free lunches. Three of five students qualify as English-learners, the children of immigrants. Some of the families survive just a couple of rungs above migrants. Indeed, the school continually wrestles with mobility.

Of 30 Head Start students one year, 12 will be gone by the second grade, replaced by 15 new arrivals from another district, another state, another country.

Role models? For a long time, the school was next door to a woman's prison.
At recess each day, the kids would hear the loudspeaker blare: "Inmates, return to your cells."

The district had a long history of anemic academic performance. In the 1980s, the high school dropout rate of Wilson students approached 90 percent. They tried everything: Offering college scholarships to anyone who graduated; sending counselors to the Phoenix Union High School District campuses to monitor Wilson students' progress, pleading with PUHSD officials for assistance. Nothing worked.

Today, it's just the opposite. The Wilson Charter High School, established eight years ago, has a graduation rate of over 90 percent. Two-thirds of these kids are Wilson elementary grads. Same kids, same demographic, different results.

This year, 133 out-of-district students attend Wilson Primary School under the open enrollment program. Here's why they come:

• Wilson is designated as a "performing plus" school by the state Department of Education.

• Carolyn Borger and Pat Murawski were finalists for Rodel Foundation's Teacher of the Year. Two teachers from the same school.

• Located at Fillmore and 30th streets in a rough, seedy part of east Phoenix, sandwiched between Phoenix Elementary, Balsz and Roosevelt districts, Wilson's at-risk population is higher than any of the PUHSD feeder districts. Yet its AIMS scores are better than most, comparable to any. Wilson students are scoring higher than the state average on the AIMS tests.

• The school has gone high tech. Each student in every grade works on an individual computer. Teachers work off interactive SMART Boards to instruct and monitor every student.

"We go on virtual field trips in social studies, where we'll tour the Louvre or explore a Brazilian rain forest," boasts Marco Ruiz, a fifth-grade teacher who is passing on his technology training to the kids.

Teachers integrate technology into every lesson, from music to geography, science and math. "In Fast Math, they feel like they're playing games, but they're really working math problems," Ruiz says proudly.

Wilson kids already have learned Power Point, Excel and Word, even though
most don't have computers at home. That's a great advance for them, narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The computers are the result of a fortuitous sale of school property at 24th Street and Buckeye Road for expansion of Sky Harbor International Airport.

The 21st-century high tech arrived as part of the vision of las locas, the crazy ones, board members like Mercedes Robles, Grace Ruiz and Trini Nuñez, and it was embraced by school officials, including former administrator Roger Romero; current Superintendent Tony Sanchez; Principal Cyndy Campton; the resourceful tech manager Betty Olivier; J.G. Thompson; Debra Burdick; and the late Jeff Seimer, longtime business manager.

Still, it's not just the technology. It's the time. To increase sluggish math scores (that kept it off the list of model schools that became the focus of the Morrison Institute and Center for the Future of Arizona's "Beat the Odds" report), Wilson increased math classes to two a day, from 45 minutes to 90 minutes a day, 110 for seventh- and eighth-graders.

After-school remedial classes are attended by about 400 students (more than half the student body). The last bus leaves at 6 p.m. It offers night programs for adults, too.

When this revolution was launching, Mercedes Robles never heard of business guru Jim Collins, author of the bestseller Good to Great and consultant to the "Beat the Odds" report. Yet Collins' philosophy of disciplined thought, people and actions aptly describe how things get done at Wilson.

Assessment and collaborative solutions are ongoing. Teachers meet every Wednesday afternoon to tweak instruction, training and curriculum. "We've never been complacent," Campton says. Next year, for example, Wilson enters a partnership with Arizona State University to help students prepare better for high school and college. New tutors will land on campus.

There always are challenges, new and old. Like so many school boards, particularly in minority districts, Wilson's has had its share of political turmoil, intrigue and recalls. A fresh cohort of hopeful, but needy youngsters enrolls every semester. The frantic scramble for money never ends, especially for a district where injections of federal money boosted programs.

Still, the faculty here understands something good is happening. Staffers commute from as far away as Maricopa and New River to be a part of it. Wilson's cohesion and discipline lured Araceli Ceceña from a neighboring school district to lead the first three grades. Former Wilson students like Marco Ruiz, Marco Leon and Sylvia Vasquez are eager to return as faculty.

Wilson School District calls home to one of the poorest census tracts in  Arizona, but it's succeeding, despite the odds.

Richard de Uriarte is an editorial writer. He can be reached at
richard.deuriarte@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8912.