Scottsdale school board officials demand more academic rigor

(File photo)

Professional development sessions for Scottsdale Unified School District instructors are important and valuable, but some people feel holding them on a normal school day may not be beneficial to students or teachers.

The structure in which the Scottsdale Unified School District conducts its professional development days could be improved, according to Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell.

At a Feb. 9 study session, Executive Director of Secondary Education and Accountability, Dr. Mitchell von Gnechten presented the governing board and top district officials with an outline of how a classroom operates on a normal school day vs. an early-release day.

The Scottsdale Unified School District holds monthly teacher training afternoons — called Professional Development Days. The goal is to have teaching training started by 1 p.m., which often leaves teachers rushing to wrap up their classroom duties, grab lunch and arrive on time in the 40 minutes alloted.

Governing Board Vice President Pam Kirby contends the condensed class schedule on early-release days is not only a challenge for both students and teachers, but it really results in very little being taught on those days.

A high school classroom period is cut by 14 minutes on early-release days, leaving each class period at 40 minutes.

The Scottsdale Unified School District professional development days could use a review, said Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell at the meeting.


Dr. von Genchten walked the governing board and district officials through a mock 11th grade lesson plan conducted on an early-release day.

In the example he presented, students were tasked with working in groups on a Bill of Rights assignment.

The example left Ms. Kirby feeling disappointed with what she was seeing.

Pam Kirby

“I had a hard time with this presentation, to be honest, because I couldn’t get past the example,” Ms. Kirby explained.

“In my opinion, this is a perfect example of a lack of rigor that we have in our high schools.”

A lesson plan for 16- and 17-year-olds that includes drawing pictures results in students relaying to their parents, they “only drew pictures” in class that day, according to Ms. Kirby.

“I have to believe there is a more rigorous way, that is more appropriate for 16- and 17-year-olds to teach the Bill of Rights and to ensure they have an understanding of the Bill of Rights, than drawing pictures and sharing them with teachers,” she said.

“Collectively, I guess, that’s the message that I got out of this whole presentation was honestly just disappointment, that this is the best example we have to put up it so proves what our community is saying about lack of rigor in SUSD.”

Dr. von Genchten says there probably were better examples that could have been shown, but he was asked to just pick a general sample, and all students learn in different ways.

Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says she has also heard those same complaints.

Dr. Birdwell says parents believe professional development day is a wasted day for students.

“If it was one parent or two parents, or one learning community — but the problem tends to be widespread,” she said.

As far as setting the overall tone for “rigor” in the classroom, Dr. Birdwell believes that should happen during the first days of the school year.

“When I visited schools this past fall the first week, I got to see sample after sample after sample of the lack of rigor,” Dr. Birdwell said. “I have never seen a district spend a week teaching behaviors.”

The current structure of professional development day is not the first choice, contends district officials. Ms. Kirby asked if the board should re-think its structure.

“Early release days are never the ideal way to provide professional development for teachers — time is limited, you’re in a rush, there are students who don’t get picked up on time, things happen, you don’t get started on time,” said Dr. Steven Nance, assistant superintendent of education services and former SUSD principal.

The Scottsdale district offers full professional development days during August before the school year starts, and there are other districts that offer full-day professional development days year-round.

“There are districts who have those days throughout the year,” Dr. Nance said. “One large district nearby never brings students back on Monday after a break — the day after fall break, winter break, spring break, are teacher work days for professional development.”
Dr. Birdwell says SUSD needs to find a balance.

“We want good professional development for teachers, we want the best setting so let’s have that deeper conversation,” Dr. Birdwell said.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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