Q&A: Scottsdale Schools leaders align, maintain educational pursuit

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board Room is at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave. (file photo)

Scottsdale Unified School District students, teachers and community have said their annual goodbyes to the summer break and hello to the start of a fresh school year.

New backpacks have been picked out, desks assigned and pencils sharpened, while the school district’s elected leaders prepare for another year of improvement.

The SUSD Governing Board returned to its post in early August with the first two of many meetings scheduled this year. The next SUSD Governing Board study session meeting is 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at the Mohave District Annex, 8500 E. Jackrabbit Road.

The 2017-18 school year outlook at SUSD includes:

  • Ongoing improvements to several schools following the passing of a November 2016 $229 million bond election;
  • The first year of the Coronado Success Initiative at Coronado High School;
  • New district-wide assessments;
  • Increase in primary property taxes;

A new Mandarin immersion program at one SUSD elementary school.

Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says summer was spent putting resident tax dollars to work and planning for the future of SUSD.

“This fall, we launched two exciting new programs for our youngest learners — Mandarin Immersion at Desert Canyon Elementary and the Gifted Pre-Kindergarten program at Redfield Elementary. For our older students, we are proud to offer robotics in the classroom for the first time this fall. Robotics has always been a world-class extracurricular program in our schools, but now it is a part of the high school curriculum.”

Dr. Denise Birdwell. (photo by Josh Martinez)

SUSD operates 29 schools serving 23,000 students, and employs 1,300 certified educators. Superintendent Dr. Birdwell — who joined SUSD in 2016 — along with the five elected members of the Governing Board have been steadfastly gunning for what they call a “growth mindset” in their community by addressing needs in failing infrastructure, academics, and looking at student achievement through a data-driven approach.

“The SUSD Governing Board is starting this new school year with a new core purpose in mind: To ensure all individual learners reach their full potential,” Dr. Birdwell said. “Our board is committed to that purpose, and I expect to see it at the heart of every decision it makes this school year, from construction to curriculum.”

The Coronado Success Initiative has officially begun, and Dr. Birdwell says the community will begin to see a difference in education at Coronado this year.

“Teachers will be available after school to coach students who need help outside of the classroom, and professional development is underway to make sure our team of Coronado educators is the most courageous, growth-minded and student-focused group of teachers you can find. The enthusiasm at Coronado is contagious, and we can’t wait for that energy to go viral.”

Over the summer all teachers received laptops for the first time, and campus leadership has been restructured at school sites. Some teachers, like Cocopah Middle School seventh-grade science teacher Tracey Dodrill, spent their summer increasing their own knowledge. Ms. Dodrill was one of 24 teachers nationwide hand-selected to attend the 24th annual session of the Maury Project Workshop offered by the U.S. Naval Academy.

“We are so impressed by the work our instructional leaders have put in already this school year,” Dr. Birdwell explained. “Teachers have studied growth-mindset and learned new technology, while principals got coaching in everything from legal issues to leadership.”

New this year is a “Coffee with Dr. Birdwell” morning forum scheduled bimonthly at each high school, and fall and spring evening forums in each learning community.

“As for me, I am making a personal commitment to increase communication in the coming year, which is why I will host parents and community members at public forums 30 times in the next 10 months,” Dr. Birdwell says. “If any issues or concerns arise during the school year, parents will have an opportunity to discuss them with me directly.”

The Scottsdale Independent reached out to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board president and vice president to see where their sights are set for the new school year. Below are responses from Barbara Perleberg and Pam Kirby.

Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg

•As a governing board member, what has had your attention this summer?

Barbara Perleberg

With the goal of all individual students reaching their full potential, our Governing Board has clearly recognized the need for a new and improved “Culture of Data” in SUSD. A variety of student assessments should be serving as useful tools for our educators while also driving our district’s goals. Unfortunately, we have not always been consistent in creating meaningful data our teachers can use to effectively improve instruction, and administration can use to determine the proper supports for our classrooms.

•What are you most looking forward to the board tackling this school year?

This culture shift is a challenging work in progress. By defining our metrics last spring and with historic data and AZMerit scores gathered after the 2016-17 school year, SUSD now has our first real chance to put this exciting new dialogue into action. Our Governing Board definitely noticed the difference at our August meeting, and I am very eager to watch these conversations develop this fall as campus and district goals are defined.

•Does the governing board have any specific goals for this school year?

We have several priorities to address at the start of this school year, but what stands out for me is the importance of developing, training, and supporting strong levels of leadership on our campuses focused on student learning. Dr. Birdwell and her team have already made significant changes in this direction, and the Governing Board is very supportive of redefining the roles of our principals, assistant principals, and teacher leaders. Our purpose is to educate, and solid instructional leadership must be directly connected to the classroom as it effectively communicates with district administration to help drive Governing Board decisions. It is only then we can truly support our teachers and see the needle move in academic achievement.

Governing Board Vice President Pam Kirby

•As a governing board member, what has had your attention this summer?

The SUSD Governing Board is united in that we have increased academic expectations for all students. However, just saying that doesn’t make it so. Culture shifts are needed, process changes are required and execution is critical. Over the summer, the 2017 AZMerit scores gave us our first glimpse into the results of the organization’s efforts. While the scores aren’t final, early reads indicate that SUSD growth is outpacing state growth. This is important because SUSD ranks higher than the state average which means one would expect the state to grow faster than SUSD. Additionally, when looking at trends since 2008, SUSD appears to have changed the trajectory of years of sliding academic performance. We saw positive academic performance increases in 2016 and continued to build upon that with another year of increases in 2017.

•What do you expect for the governing board to tackle this fall?

Pam Kirby

We will set goals for the superintendent that will, ideally, cascade through the organization. I hope to see each school have specific, measureable goals that reflect appropriate academic growth targets for that school.

•What are you most looking forward to the board tackling this school year?

This past summer, it was exciting to see steps taken toward the goal of developing strong instructional leaders on all of our campuses who will be accountable to the communities they serve. To bring that vision to life, the principals engaged in meaningful professional development to strengthen their instructional leadership skills. Feedback from the principals was overwhelmingly positive. They, in turn, will develop teachers on their campus who will step into instructional leadership roles, providing professional development for other teachers. I’m looking forward to working with my fellow board members on policy decisions, investment priorities and clear communication to ensure this vision continues to unfold.

•Does the governing board have any specific goals for this school year?

The board has set forth a core purpose “to ensure all individual learners reach their full potential.” Students who are behind others can feel frustrated or stressed, which does not help their learning. Fast learners can get bored and become unmotivated. If we truly believe students learn differently, then we have no choice but to put the focus on the student and build learning systems that are responsive to their individual needs. Every decision the board makes will be put through this filter. We will increase the academic expectations and align assessment and instruction to the student. Critical to our success will be educators and parents working together to ensure every child is challenged and every child puts forth his/her personal best.

What has you worried or maybe what is coming down the pike that is likely to garner local opinions?

I’m not worried, but I am realistic as SUSD evolves from a “one-size-fits-all” culture to one that meets the needs of the individual student. There are members of our community who want us to move faster and there are those who want us to slow down. There are also those who want the status quo of yesteryear. Those voices will all surface. However, SUSD has positive momentum and we will continue to harness that momentum to move forward at an appropriate pace. We have the leadership in place at all levels in the organization to not only put SUSD on top in AZ, but also move us to the national stage as a leader in public education.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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