How Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District is engineering success

Nogales, AZ | Submitted by Carol Cullen

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At a small school district near the Arizona/Mexico border, in an area where nearly all students are Hispanic, close to 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch and many are English language learners, schools are faced with daunting challenges. But at Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District (SCVUSD), educators have hit on a formula for growth. At SCVUSD, every faculty and staff member truly believes that all students are capable of success. It’s that culture that has helped them with everything from improving English language proficiency to boosting Advanced Placement work.

Student growth starts with district leadership. They meet annually to set goals for schools and grade levels. This planning, paired with strong access to data and analytics, is helping them to stay focused on what matters most and adjust to ensure improvement. They work with both staff and students to get buy-in for a focus on high achievement.

SVUSD has been recognized as an Advanced Placement (AP) District of the Year

Many of the students at SCVUSD come to their classrooms behind on their learning – kindergarteners might be a year or two behind, and older children even further. But teachers work with them to ensure they catch up as quickly as possible. The preschool program is a critical component of that. And to further enhance early learning, the district has a family resource center that offers courses to educate caregivers on how to enhance learning in the home.

Results on the district’s own growth assessment is shared with students, whose goal is to do their best every time. With testing happening three times per year, teachers and students can track improvement over the last exam. The results also allow educators to quickly identify which topics need additional instruction. This targeted approach paves the way for small group intervention and tailored instruction.

At the high school level, SVUSD has been recognized as an Advanced Placement (AP) District of the Year for their efforts to boost enrollment and passing grades in their AP classes. The national distinction is no small thing. Of their current AP students, four out of five were previously English language learners, yet the district has been able to boost both enrollment and test performance. And it wasn’t the only award of its kind – the district was also named a Cambridge District of the Year.

SCVUSD is especially effective with ELL students. Among kindergarteners, about 60 percent of youth are ELL, but that drops to 15 percent by middle school and 7 percent by high school. Especially in younger grades, teachers focus closely on building English proficiency. Thanks to their efforts, students improve faster than the state average and are often proficient in four to five years, rather than the average seven.

Part of this success stems from the district’s instructional model, SIOP (sheltered instruction observation protocol). All teachers and administrators in SCVUSD receive training on the SIOP model. The model includes eight components aimed at providing quality instructional experiences to all students, but particularly English learners. These children are held to the same highs standards as other students. The approach has been so successful, in fact, that the district has had a youth recognized by Arizona Department of Education as an ELL Student of the Year or honorable mention for the past six years in a row.

Their work with students is so impactful that recent research by Stanford University showed that SVUSD is in the 99th percentile nationally for student growth, among districts of a similar size. In grades 3-8, students averaged six years of growth, which is putting them at much higher chances of success after graduation. SCVUSD is putting their students on the track to higher learning, better jobs and more choices in life.

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