Ray Chavez almost collapses into a chair. The Carson Junior High School principal says he’s been going full speed all week as students at the west Mesa school finished Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, the AIMS test.
Come to think of it, he says, he’s been moving at this speed since he arrived in Mesa from Tucson last summer.
“This is a speed-along district,” he said. “You get moving, or you get left.”
Chavez has been charged with turning around Carson, which for more than five years was labeled “failing” by the federal government.
How is it going?
“Everyone tells me, when they come visit, they tell me this isn’t even the same school,” Chavez said.
The school’s student leader agrees.
“Last year, it didn’t feel like a school environment,” said Joy Okeze, 14. “Last year, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college. This year, I know I want to be a neurologist ... Students are more respectful than they were last year.”
Joy, the student body president, said conversations in the hall last year might have included, “Did you see that fight?” “This year,” she said, “it’s, ‘What have you been studying for AIMS?’”
“I know for a fact our AIMS scores are going to be much better,” she said. “They have been hammering us about AIMS since the first day of school.”
Change of scene
Chavez first visited the campus last spring, a sort of scouting trip to see if he wanted to apply for the job to be “turnaround” principal.
“It was the culture of the place” that concerned him most, he said. Carson had OK test scores, earning a “performing” label for a few years and a “C” this year as part of the state Department of Education’s new academic accountability system.
But there was a lack of commitment from the students, and a lack of respect, Chavez said.
While the state’s accountability rules found Carson to be performing or average, the federal system painted a different picture: A school that failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least five years under the No Child Left Behind law. Most often, the federal system found Carson lacking in how it educated English language learners; most recently the school was also found to be failing in special education.
As a “turnaround” school, the federal government required drastic changes. Every employee at the school was told he or she would have to reapply for their jobs.
“Some chose not to do that,” associate superintendent Bruce Cox said. “Some chose to go somewhere else and not be part of the turnaround process.”
Chavez kept on 15 teachers; 35 new ones were hired.
Using data from consultants who had been on campus last year examining the school, Chavez said he made a list of the teachers he most desired to keep.
“I invited some teachers to stay, but also used an interview to see if they matched what we were going to be doing at the school,” Chavez said.
Tony Elmer came to the school as a team leader, or assistant principal, from Smith Junior High School, where he’d been the last eight years.
“I looked at it as a school in Mesa that needed help — a lot of help,” he said of applying for the job. “I could really learn about leadership in education and dive into something that really means something.”
Chavez adopted the motto “all in” to represent what he expects of the staff and the students.
“I think most of it was getting serious about getting what the kids need,” he said. “I challenged the staff early. We told them this is going to be nothing but work. We brought in people who were not just good, but caring.”
The school had already started a training program for teachers, but Chavez said he’s looking to expand and refine the program. Already, teachers devote one planning period each week to the training. One example, he said, is changing how teachers praise students by getting specific or asking them how they came to the right answer, rather than just saying “you’re good.”
“One hundred percent of my teachers got better,” he said. “The teachers really went all in.”
Chavez spent four years at Tucson’s Apollo Middle School, a campus much like Carson when he started there: low-socioeconomic status, lackluster test scores and a high number of English learners.
Before he left, the school’s test scores were up, parenting classes were started on campus and a community fitness center opened.
He has ideas at Carson, but first, “We need a safer and more orderly campus and a positive academic trend. That’s first year work. Second year work ... we’ll figure out how to engage the community more, parents, business and the community in general.
“Carson is pretty remarkable that it has a whole bunch of facilities we could use for that sort of thing.”
The Carson student body president praised Chavez’s arrival.
He “blew us out of the water,” she said. “He took it personal: ‘If you’re not doing good. The school is not doing good.’”
Elmer agreed, adding that the teachers now ask the students to be more responsible for what happens.
“A lot of it is the ownership the students take in their own training,” he said.
In Patti Reckell’s language arts class the day after AIMS testing, students were busy with their learning.
They were researching topics such as, “the hazards of poverty and the impact on public health,” and the Dream Act, and coming up with a word from each letter of the alphabet to describe the topics or their thoughts on them.
Behind Reckell’s desk, up on a wall, hangs each class’ mission statement.
“We are here to learn English skills, exceed on AIMS, prepare for college and be successful in life,” reads one statement.
“We are here to increase our writing abilities, exceed on AIMS and prepare for higher education,” reads another.
This year, Carson saw 99 percent attendance during AIMS testing, Chavez said. And during the test, students were focused and on task.
Joy said last year her classmates looked at AIMS as “just another math test.” This year, they took it seriously.
In fact, Chavez said, the teachers took learning and AIMS preparation to another level, making “regular school” harder than the AIMS.
“Three weeks ago I asked them if they were ready,” Chavez said of his students. “They responded, ‘We’re just waiting.’ That was nice to hear. We didn’t really review. We were just ready in the general sense.”
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