Scottsdale school board eyes potential alternations to be made at southern schools

A view of SUSD Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell talking to district staff at a Feb. 2 study session. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The Scottsdale Unified School District is not giving up its fight to retain and attract students by focusing on the programs, culture and academics it already has in place.

At its Feb. 2 study session, the district’s governing board and top administration looked at its southern schools, known as the Granite Reef Corridor, to talk about school choice for parents.

Within the multitude of options offered to parents when it’s time to send their child off to school, decisions can be made regarding the neighborhood school, academic rigor, culture and programs offered, according to Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell.

District officials and the governing board met at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave., to look at schools such as Pueblo Elementary, Pima Elementary, Navajo Elementary, Hohokam Traditional School and Yavapai Elementary.

Ultimately district officials discussed the future of Hohokam remaining a traditional school and expanding its enrollment to be a K-8 school, providing students in the south with a traditional school, and providing support for middle school students who have completed the Foreign Language Immersion program at Pueblo Elementary School.

Assistant Superintendent of Accountability and Instruction Dr. Anna McCauley and Data Analyst Casey Miller provided district officials and audience members with an overview of each of the schools’ statistical information as to where students live within the city, and what school they attend.

Statistical information shows, says Dr. McCauley, that 44.2 percent of students who attend Pima Elementary live within its school boundaries, while another 43.48 percent of its students come from elsewhere in the Scottsdale district. Another outlier was Hohokam traditional school, which has 50 percent of its students coming from within its boundaries, while the rest are coming from other places in the city or outside district boundaries.

District officials say these numbers point to the idea that parents choose schools for their children based off of choice, and are not necessarily choosing their neighborhood school.

“The good part of choice is it’s made us better,” said Dr. Birdwell.

A traditional school

Scottsdale Unified School District offers two traditional schools: Cheyenne, in the northern part of the district, and Hohokam, in the south at 8451 E. Oak St. between Hayden and Pima roads.

(file photo)

According to Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Steve Nance, a traditional school offers specific learning programs such as Phonics, has teachers arranging its classroom desks in rows and cuts back on assemblies and other events that would take-away from classroom time.

“Hohokam isn’t the definition of a traditional school,” said Superintendent Dr. Birdwell at the meeting. “It’s a name not needed because they’re just an elementary school and they’re doing great.”

The school is attracting students and is headed in the right direction, she explained.

While no decisions have been made, Hohokam Principal Chuck Rantala expressed his community’s desire to remain on the same path they’ve been on.

“The staff is interested in doing what’s right for kids,” said Mr. Rantala. “We know the kids and know what they need and we can push them. She (Dr. Birdwell) said rigor being an important component to why people choose schools and I believe we have that at Hohokam.”

Additionally, the community has been surveyed to gauge the level of interest in expanding into a K-8 school.

According to Mr. Rantala, there are 54 fifth graders who have verbally committed to staying at Hohokam if they offer sixth grade next year.

If Hohokam doesn’t begin offering middle school classes, the students would be attending Tonalea K-8, said Dr. Birdwell. The southern part of the district no longer has a regular middle school, after Supai Middle School was turned into Tonalea K-8 last year.

“I think there was a heavy motivation of ‘if we’re going to send them to a K-8, why aren’t we just a K-8?’” explained Dr. Birdwell. “So the question becomes what is in the best interest to both academically to meet the needs?”

Potential changes that could happen at Hohokam raised questions about still providing a traditional school to southern students.

Governing Board Vice President Pam Kirby recounted an old soccer-fence anecdote, stating parents have often said the southern schools can support a traditional school.

Dr. Birdwell said her first recommendation would be to turn Pima Elementary, 8330 E. Osborn Road, into the traditional school because it is the second largest drawing throughout the district.

It also sits on about 18 acres and has land to expand into a K-8 school, she said.

“I do believe that we in Scottsdale could, I think we would not only draw from within Scottsdale southern, I think we would draw from the middle of our boundary and from other learning communities as well, who don’t want to drive all the way north but want that rigor,” Dr. Birdwell said.

Any changes would require conversations with the community and parents, she said.

“It’s a really solid K-5, but is that going to keep it going forward?” asked Dr. Birdwell.

Success at Pueblo

The FLI program offered at Pueblo Elementary School is considered full-immersion, where students learn half of their day in Spanish and half of their day in English.

Students who do not speak Spanish cannot enroll at Pueblo after kindergarten, said Dr. Birdwell, who pointed to a group of apartments right next to the school who have no choice but to enroll their student in another school.

The superintendent says a lot of people are attracted to Pueblo Elementary school.

“One could say, are there other families in our district not having the opportunity because maybe transportation doesn’t exist?” asked Dr. Birdwell.

“In talking with folks from Tonalea, one of the concerns with Tonalea, is it’s very difficult to catch the city bus, and it drops you a half mile from Pueblo, so should we be running a bus down from Tonalea to help the families who would like bilingual to come up to Pueblo? That might be a solution.”

Dr. Birdwell says buses could run through Hohokam and Tonalea boundaries to bus students to Pueblo. There are a handful of buses that pick students up throughout the district to take them to Cheyenne Traditional School.

“I think we have to have that dialogue because it’s not equitable to provide all this transportation to Cheyenne, and not provide the same transportation for Pueblo for the Spanish group,” said Dr. Birdwell. “If we’re going to do choice we need to be equitable.”

After students complete the program in fifth grade, there is a gap between sixth, seventh and eighth grade, until students can begin taking Spanish in high school again.

“So your question becomes what happens to these kiddos in this window of time right here?” asked Dr. Birdwell, pointing toward the middle school ages.

“So we need to look at the middle school language program and actually create a FLI track for the students.”

Dr. Birdwell says the district is actively seeking instructors who could fill this middle school gap.

Northeast Valley News Services 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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