For two hours on May 25 Scottsdale Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell faced dozens of parents in an elementary school cafeteria who were looking for answers.
On a Friday afternoon in late May, just days before the last day of school, parents of Supai Middle School received a letter stating what was a mostly unforeseen message: Tonalea Elementary School will move to the middle school and it will become a kindergarten through eighth grade school, called Tonalea K-8.
The letter — stating how carefully the decision was weighed by district leadership — was an accident apparently, school officials say.
An accident Dr. Birdwell allegedly did not know about until her meeting with Tonalea Elementary School parents on May 25.
“It was a premature send-out on my behalf,” said Dr. Birdwell after the meeting. “There’s nothing I can do except for saying that I’m sorry. The board truly has the final say.”
Although accidentally released, the news is most likely going to be fact, according to Dr. Birdwell, if the board votes June 7 to pursue a $240 million bond initiative. She believes the teachers should know what might be coming down the road before they sign their contracts for next year.
One part of the letter that was factual, was stating there would be an informative meeting with parents in the Tonalea cafeteria at 3:30 p.m. on May 25. Later, the district added an additional meeting date at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 1, in the Coronado Board Room to reach more parents.
“Let me first start by saying, I apologize,” said Dr. Birdwell to parents at the meeting.
“This should have been the first meeting; before the bond meeting, before the teacher meeting, before the district-level meeting. So, I own that. I’m new to the district, so in that, I feel like I am on the backside trying to catch up to the issues we’re facing here in Scottsdale.”
Amidst the upcoming votes and evolving future in Scottsdale’s schools, academics is the driving force behind all of the changes, Dr. Birdwell assured parents.
In pursuit of accuracy
Surprised by a Supai parent’s comment about receiving a letter stating “the deal was done,” Dr. Birdwell says she didn’t know parents received a letter stating that.
“You know what, I’m just going to go crazy in Scottsdale with the way we communicate and send out information,” said Dr. Birdwell at the meeting. A couple of parents let out small laughter.
“Did it have my name on it? Does it say I’m recommending or it’s a done deal?”
Several parents chimed in about what the letter said, saying they had also received it. Dr. Birdwell looked at Scottsdale Schools Public Information Officer Kristine Harrington, who nodded.
Dr. Birdwell took full blame for the mistake — saying there are too many saucers in the air right now.
“The problem that I’m on is that I don’t want staff not knowing this could happen. The worst is ‘I was gone on vacation and you moved me,’” said Dr. Birdwell after the meeting.
The Independent reached out to the district on the day the letter was released, but didn’t respond to Scottsdale Independent Editor Terrance Thornton until the following Monday when an additional community meeting was announced.
Public Information Officer Kristine Harrington told staff in an e-mail the possibility had been discussed at a couple of past meetings.
The first, was May 9 at the Coronado community meeting addressing questions and concerns about the upcoming bond package. On May 10, a copy of proposed information presented at the previous day’s meetings was uploaded to the SUSD website. The document stated, “Also being considered is combining Tonalea Elementary School and Supai Middle School to create a K-8 school at Supai,” she said in her May 22 response to the Independent’s inquiry.
Ms. Harrington also stated in her response the topic came up in the public comment part of the May 10 general meeting, and was “mentioned” in the facility masterplan update at the study session on May 12.
Bond package likely coming
If the board approves the bond, then yes — Tonalea and its 320 students will be moving into the Supai campus, 6720 E. Continental Drive, and the school will begin under the proposed name, Tonalea K-8, beginning August 2016.
“I’ve spoken to all of my board members and there is an openness to this change because they know the academics need to be addressed,” said Dr. Birdwell.
Officials there say the bond program is needed to repair failing infrastructure that would otherwise fall into further disrepair.
The name change is due to Supai’s low label: D. Although Tonalea’s label isn’t great, C, it is better, said Dr. Birdwell. The “D” label would remain with the Supai name indefinitely.
The name change will be the governing board’s decision.
The consolidation decision is based on the bond because the district still plans to rebuild the old Tonalea campus, but that possibility is years away, said Dr. Birdwell.
After the board votes on whether to ask voters for the bond, Dr. Birdwell will present the board with an academic improvement recommendation that comes along with addressing the issue of whether or not to merge two schools.
“If the board so chooses to combine these two schools together we are starting our academic work right away,” said Dr. Birdwell. “If the board chooses not to move these two schools together I’m still going to work on academics because I’m not going to sit back and watch this occur.”
State statute states the district needs to give the public 10 days of notice prior to a public meeting to discuss closing a school within the school district. In addition, the board shall hear reasons for and against closing the school at the meeting.
Students are failing
Using third, fourth and fifth grade AIMS scores from 2010-14, and the 2015 AzMERIT scores, Dr. Birdwell showed parents the disappointing news of how poorly the school’s students are performing.
It isn’t the only school in the district doing poorly, but it has been doing consistently poorly — a fact Dr. Birdwell considers unacceptable, she says.
“We are below the state all but two years,” said Dr. Birdwell about the school’s AIMS reading test scores. The interim superintendent has plans to implement a new learning plan within the Coronado Learning Community because there are problems across several schools, she said.
The data showed students struggling on reading scores in kindergarten through third grade, and then dropping in fourth and fifth grade. The issue will continue to snowball, said Dr. Birdwell.
On last year’s AzMERIT reading and language scores only 13 percent of Coronado High School students passed — and only 4 percent were highly performing.
In math, only 15 percent of students passed.
Of all Scottsdale Schools graduates who attended Arizona State University last year, only 19 students came from Coronado. If that is due to financial constraints, then the district will help students learn about the types of scholarships available to them, Dr. Birdwell said.
She believes it isn’t due to finances; however, it’s because Coronado students are struggling to pass the entrance exams.
“For the first time in years, I am putting in reading courses in the high school level to go back and teach 16-and-17-year-olds how to read. That’s because of many, many years of not being successful,” said Dr. Birdwell.
This year’s AzMERIT test scores are expected to be available soon, said Dr. Birdwell.
“There’s no way to make up for the poor communication that’s occurred. The bottom line is I’ve been here 14 weeks; this is not OK with me. I know how to fix it. I want to create a culture and an environment where we can get this work done.”
Tonalea Elementary is full
What was supposed to be a temporary campus for an elementary school, has now been in use for two years. The classrooms and campus are full, leaving no room to expand.
The good news is that this area is growing and families are moving in, said Dr. Birdwell. However, with a full school new residents are being forced to attend a different school.
“The problem is you got moved to a temporary home that you outgrew,” said Dr. Birdwell. “No one made plans as to where you need to go next.”
On the other hand, Supai has been planned out, and has plenty of room says Dr. Birdwell. The proposed school model would have younger students on one side of the campus, the arts classrooms in the middle, and older students on the opposite side.
“We have walked the campus, we have gone over it with both principals. There is a room for every teacher with extra rooms. That’s how large that campus is,” said Dr. Birdwell.
The district estimates to have about 900 students at Tonalea K-8.
All Tonalea Elementary teachers are welcome to move to the new campus. Student schedules for next year will be the exact same, said Dr. Birdwell.
Current Supai Principal Shelley Hummon will be in charge of the older students, while current Supai Assistant Principal Dr. David Priniski will be leading the younger students.
“There was no reduction to staff, there was adding to staff,” said Dr. Birdwell.
SUSD will begin offering all day preschool on the Tonalea Elementary campus. In addition, the preschool program currently open will also be moving to Tonalea K-8.