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Addressing the unique challenges of urban and rural schools

by Expect More Arizona

It shouldn’t matter whether a child walks three blocks, rides a bus for an hour or carpools with neighborhood kids to get to school. They should all have access to the best educational opportunities.

Here in Arizona, about half of our public school students are enrolled in urban schools, with the remaining youth split between suburban, small towns and rural areas. This geographic diversity can create wide disparities in how schools are able to deliver on their goal to prepare their students for the next step. We spoke with seven districts across the state to better understand how their location plays a role in their ability to educate Arizona students.

Take, for instance, life in Safford Unified School District, where many students travel on dirt roads to reach their school and where field trips are reliant on grant funding because of the long distance to the destination. Classroom materials can’t be found at the local big box stores, because there isn’t one. Everything has to be shipped in before it can be used in the classroom.

It’s not unlike Winslow Unified School District, where many children arrive at school from the local reservation. Some students live in dorms onsite, but many have to return immediately after school to attend to household and agricultural chores, leaving them without the opportunity to participate afterschool programs. In small towns like Winslow, where the population is shrinking, that also means reduced school enrollments and budgets.

Small districts like Superior Unified School District ask every employee to wear more than one hat. The high school principal is also the athletic director; the superintendent is also the curriculum director. In an already demanding industry, this can overload staff members faster than ever, and, like many districts all over the state, they lack the necessary capital funding to upgrade technology that has been long outdated. With this lack of funds, it also makes facility and bus maintenance a big challenge.

Serving a border community, Douglas Unified School District has to address language barriers with most of its families, which makes it a struggle to get parents involved. Its proximity to the border can even make teacher recruitment a problem. Like many districts with large minority populations, high student turnover makes it challenging for students to make academic gains.

Rural districts have difficulty in finding young teachers who are willing to relocate to their area. Most young teachers seek the city life where they can find more amenities, entertainment and social opportunities. Finances can also contribute to the teacher shortage as rural schools are less likely to offer competitive salaries. Finding well-qualified teachers is hard in every location, but it is especially tough for rural Arizona.

To combat this, some rural districts have implemented “grow your own” programs, which encourage local residents to pursue a career in education. Programs like these are better than recruiting from elsewhere, since locals are more likely to stay in town over the long term and have a direct connection to the community.

In urban areas, an abundance of job opportunities might be a benefit to job-seekers, but it creates challenges for the team at Washington Elementary School District in filling open positions. The district is located in central Phoenix/Glendale area which means that teachers and support staff have a seemingly endless supply of other openings to pursue. Every year, the district faces an average of 200 roles to fill – for faculty alone. It’s hard to find more than one candidate for an opening. In addition, the pay for support staff can’t match that of other industries. Food workers, bus drivers and others often find better paying jobs in other sectors. There are also a variety of challenges resulting from sheer size – Washington Elementary is the largest elementary school district in Arizona, with 32 schools and 24,000 students and 59 languages represented. That means 6,000 students are riding 7,000 miles a day – it’s no small feat to hire enough bus drivers.

This is similar to the situation in Balsz School District in southeast Phoenix. It is also a high-needs area where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. High student turnover coupled with adverse childhood experiences, such as divorce or violence in the home, have a dramatic impact on youth’s ability to learn. Finding and keeping highly qualified teachers is also difficult. Schools often have to fill open positions with long-term subs and must compete with neighboring districts for candidates. There are also challenges in supporting new teachers and training educators on new curriculum. The district recently invested time and funding in training a grade-level team on new math curriculum only to have a third of the team leave the district, which can have a big impact on student learning.

In the suburban area of Gilbert, Higley Unified School District is facing the same teacher shortage that other areas are. Filling gaps with long-term subs isn’t as effective as having a well-trained, experienced educator. What’s more, shrinking budgets have created a new level of uncertainty in planning and have made it nearly impossible to make necessary investments in curriculum and other upgrades.

There are a few things that every district noted as essential to providing every student with an excellent education. The first and most important component for a quality educational experience is a highly effective teacher who has access to professional development opportunities and a support team.

It’s the people who make the difference. However, to get good faculty and staff, districts need the funding to offer support, competitive pay, up-to-date curriculum and technology resources. Leadership at districts all over Arizona recognize teachers’ skills, dedication and increasing responsibilities, but teaching can take a toll on home and family life, causing many to burn out before they’ve even reached the height of their effectiveness.

Despite the challenges, there are a plethora of success stories from every corner of the state:

  • Safford Unified has invested in new curriculum, helping to increase AzMERIT scores. A leadership program at the high school has helped to decrease the drop-out rate.
  • Winslow Unified created a high school support system that has led to big gains. In fact, they have a graduation rate among Native American students that rivals the state average.
  • Superior Unified is working with the local industry to allow for new curriculum resources and staff appreciation events. They’re even working with the Phoenix Symphony to get youth engaged in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).
  • Douglas Unified has created a valuable sense of community around their schools, which provides a strong support system for both students and staff. Their robust CTE (career and technical education) programs are also helping to keep kids engaged.
  • Washington Elementary provides support to every staff member who needs it and makes it a priority to celebrate accomplishments. The district provides an induction and award winning mentoring program that teachers share is a reason why they stay in Washington. They’re even helping to stabilize families by helping to find employment for parents.
  • Balsz School District increased the retention of new teachers to the profession through the work of a mentoring and induction program. Prior to implementing the program, retention of first year teachers was 52 percent. The second year of the program, first year teacher retention increased to 85 percent. Additionally, three years after lengthening the school year to 200 days, English language learner reclassification rates increased from 11 to 42 percent.
  • Higley Unified offers both Mandarin and Spanish immersion for young students to help them develop language skills at a young age. They’ve made their gifted and talented program a priority, which many schools overlook due to lack of resources.

Regardless of a parent’s income, a student’s location or unique needs, every student in Arizona deserves the chance to receive an excellent education every step of the way. School faculty and staff are doing amazing things every day, even in the face of limited resources, and they deserve a great deal of respect for the things they sacrifice daily.

Making Progress Together

265 organizations

are partnering with us to make education a top priority in Arizona

80 thousand

supporters of the movement for world-class education in Arizona

96 percent

of Arizonans believe all kids deserve a world-class education

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