TUSD school strives to shed failing yoke
arizona daily star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/118746

By Jeff Commings and Daniel Scarpinato


Echoing through the halls of Lawrence Intermediate School, the voice of third-grade teacher Elma Damon rises above the excited din of students.
Student Anthony Trujillo shares what he learned from a story about a girl in a California mining town in the 1800s.
And Principal Jon Ben-Asher speaks with a parent, a student and an employee, never seeming to be in a rush.
This is a failing school?
Teachers and parents seem dumbfounded by the label given to the tile-and-brick school a few paces from the Pascua Yaqui Nation because they say they're seeing signs of success. Test results might not show it yet, but they say students are reading better and showing a renewed interest in learning.
But the school, at 4850 S. Jeffrey Road, has been labeled failing, based on a part of the No Child Left Behind Act called Adequate Yearly Progress. It ranks a school based on such things as AIMS test scores, demographics, income level and teacher-student ratios.
If a school fails to show progress in at least one of the criteria, then it gets a "failing" label. Lawrence has received that label four years in a row, causing district and school officials to prepare for a total revamp of staff and curriculum in order to break out of the rut.
"It's so untrue," Damon said of the failing label. "Our kids are performing every day."
Take her morning writing class, for example. Most of her 10 students can spell words like "combatant" and "informality."
She wonders: Would failing kids in the third grade be able to spell five-syllable words?
Officials find it difficult to pinpoint the specific cause of Lawrence's problems. Who's to blame: Parents? Teachers? The principal? Or is it something larger than that? The school, in the Tucson Unified School District, faces problems that many other schools struggle with, but some are extreme: High poverty, high minority enrollment, low scores on standardized tests and government labels.
As a whole, the scores for American Indian students lag behind all other ethnic groups in TUSD and nationally, said Anselmo Ramon, TUSD's director of Native American studies.
"I think part of that answer is in the culture of the students and where they come from," he said. "One of the issues is understanding their cultural values. Students do take their cultures seriously, and the system may not always recognize that."
It also may be an issue of low expectations, he said, meaning that less is expected from American Indian students than from students of other ethnicities. That's why Ramon, who grew up on the Tohono O'odham Nation, is participating in Lawrence's restructuring plan.
Ben-Asher has said Lawrence officials are dedicated to injecting more culture in the curriculum and after-school programs. But his approach is to not dwell on the statistical breakdowns.
"It's always been my position that no matter what factors are out there what the external factors may be it is our obligation and our responsibility at the school to do the best we can," he told the TUSD governing board last week.
Ben-Asher, his staff and the school community are working together to create the plan to improve the school.
"We all met and decided to give Lawrence a new beginning," said Damon, now in her eighth year at the school.
Still, not everything will change. Projects that have shown promise will continue, including the 2-year-old Walk and Read program, in which students lagging behind in reading work with other students of equal ability in rooms other than their home classes.
"We're showing growth," Damon said. "It's pretty slow, but it's more up than down."
Also part of the restructuring is a personnel overhaul. All employees at the school have the choice to stay by reapplying for their jobs. If they don't want to stay, they will be assigned to other schools in the district. But those who remain will get incentive bonuses, and the principal will get a longer contract.
The consequences are bleak if the district can't turn things around. Failing to fix things would means continued intervention, and the district eventually could close the school.
The situation is similar to but more serious than what happened last year to two local elementary schools that failed the state accountability system, Arizona Learns. Those schools TUSD's Van Buskirk Elementary and Sunnyside Unified's Craycroft Elementary both earned better labels in the next assessment, but only after state experts stepped in. Craycroft also received a new principal.
Still, most of what's at stake for Lawrence is uncharted territory, admits Tommie Miel, deputy associate superintendent for state intervention at the Arizona Department of Education.
Though the teachers have a lot weighing on them in coming months, they try to not address the issue of restructuring with students. The kids have enough to worry about, they say.
"Imagine what that does to our kids (to hear) that they go to an underperforming school," Damon said. "What they need to know is that when they come into Room 313, they have a caring teacher."
Anthony Trujillo, the student who liked the story of California miners, said he likes his teacher because she "helped me be a better writer."
Rebekah Page is a parent who believes in the school. She transferred her son from a Sunnyside Unified school two weeks ago, even after she knew of Lawrence's troubles.
"Even though they're under this bombshell, so to speak, they're still thriving," said Page, whose 11-year-old son, Xavier, is in the fifth grade. "These teachers are still trying. I can see the light in their eyes."
Page, 42, said Lawrence could rise out its rut if more parents got involved, either by volunteering or sitting in on a class, which she said she often does.
"You have to reinforce what the teachers are teaching," she said. "When the bell rings at 3, these kids are still learning. I don't think schools would be failing so much if the parents were involved somehow."
But, at least for the moment, the students have a full staff committed to making Lawrence the best it can possibly be.
"We're not abandoning Lawrence," Damon said.
About Lawrence Intermediate School: