• State of the District 2020

    Does “2020 vision” mean you have perfect eyesight? The American Optometric Association states this is not the case. Twenty-twenty vision indicates the “sharpness or clarity of vision” measurement at a specific distance, twenty feet. Many other variables are just as important to have great vision such as focus, depth perception, color recognition, movement, etc.  In addition, some individuals may see extremely well when objects are close, while others see clearer further away. No one is perfect at both extremes; the experts decided that the 2020 vision measurement represents the best of both worlds. Hence, the closer to 2020 vision, the closer one is to the best-case scenario. When a version of the eyes are out of balance, corrective action is taken to get closer to the best-case measurement of 2020, so both situations may be handled by your eyes with maximum clarity. Deer Valley Unified School District (DVUSD) has similar traits: our district requires “2020 vision” so we can be effective with what is up close and immediate, and what is also far into the future.

    As the calendar switches over to the year 2020, we must strive for clearer vision. By looking with purpose for challenges and opportunities for growth at all distances and in all directions, we will be better prepared to respond to student learning needs.  Reflection on past decisions is one of the best tools for making better choices in the future; past mistakes, challenges, and successes are great teachers. As Anglo-Irish statesman Edward Burke famously stated in the 1700s, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” DVUSD can learn much by looking back into our recent history, 2019, as it allows the district to evaluate our recent past and current #Extraordinary initiatives, events, and accomplishments before we look forward with 2020 vision into next year.

    The State of the District summary not only mirrors the State of the State and the State of the Union addresses in reflection and visioning, but it is also used as an accountability mechanism for DVUSD moving into the future. The design of the document is to remind us of our singular path, communicate any directional modifications to our Strategic Plan, and reinforce our district Core Values, Mission and Vision. As we step into 2020, it is a perfect time to come with fresh eyes and reevaluate the progress made with successfully executing the Strategic Plan, which covers the completion and beginning of two separate school years. By using this approach, one can look for continuity with the initiatives in progress and witness the value of the results to date.

    Maricopa County is one of the hottest pieces of real estate in the nation and all indicators are pointing in the same direction of growth and expansion, especially in the northern part of the Valley where our 367 square miles are located. The economic downturn of the past decade made for a recent bumpy fiscal ride, but it appears we may be officially heading out of the “great recession” and into a better tomorrow. Arizona is the fifth fastest growing state in the Union, while Maricopa County is the fastest growing county in the nation. Since the local, state, and national economies are all trending upward, the growth will continue to positively affect DVUSD. With the Presidential election coming in November 2020, the outcome could have a bearing on our pace of growth as a district, a county, and a state – stay tuned.

    DVUSD’s Core Values are at the center of what we believe and are the foundation on which we stand. Our R.A.I.S.E. acronym helps remind us of - Respect for each other, Accountability to fulfill our commitments, Integrity in all that we do, Student-driven focus, and a push towards Excellence. Our Core Values are interwoven into the DVUSD five-year Strategic Plan. The input from hundreds of community, staff, and parents helped to ensure its quality, breadth, and depth.  The Strategic Plan focuses on excellence in: 1) student learning; 2) workplace performance; 3) stakeholder relationships; and 4) organizational improvement and accountability. Our Core Values and Strategic Plan must work together for DVUSD to succeed. To monitor progress effectively, the district must design, plan, and execute the correct initiatives. We must then collect data, analyze and evaluate the variables, and then adjust, continuously, every year. This is the definition and process for continuous improvement.

    During 2019, there was a tremendous emphasis on the most important variable in the DVUSD system, student success. Our work with the Department of Education, state offices, Senators, Representatives, and the Governor’s office focused on steering weak regulation and legislation away from our schools, fixing potentially strong legislation and valuable regulations, and securing additional resources for the students of Arizona. In 2019, DVUSD used our collective efforts, expertise, and resources to secure more counselors, social workers, and school resource officers for schools in Arizona, influenced the completion of the 20% by 2020 salary initiative for teachers, and increased financial commitments from the legislature for education throughout the state. DVUSD will not rest until Arizona is removed from the bottom of most state lists in funding for K-12 education.

    DVUSD finished the modernization of two campuses (Arrowhead Elementary and Hillcrest Middle) and integrated more Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program alignment for students. We used communication tools with fidelity to spread the message of excellence to all, which was illustrated by highlighting classroom, sport, and program activities with more social media engagement, the DVUSD Voice expansion, increased parental communication, print, and news media, and the first Back to School Rally in fifteen years. The message was simple – we are #Extraordinary! The guideposts in the Strategic Plan have been woven throughout the district in the 2019 goals for each staff member, department, school, cabinet member, the Superintendent and the Governing Board – the district has a concentrated purpose and is headed in the same direction, towards successful execution of the Strategic Plan.

    The five-year Strategic Plan put many challenges and opportunities in motion in 2019. Perhaps the largest shift in the DVUSD approach has been the change of the calendar and school day to accommodate the move to the integration of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) principles throughout the district. This ambitious, systemic, and comprehensive adjustment is shifting the focus from great teaching to great learning. What do we want students to know; how do we measure what they have learned; what are we going to do if they do not retain knowledge; and how do we assist students who need extended learning opportunties? Our measure is no longer, if teachers correctly taught the concept or skill, but if the students learned the concept or skill and can retain and apply it – a monumental shift. According to John Hattie’s work, an important ingredient to academic success for all students lies in teacher collaboration; hence, the dedicated early-release times in the school calendar to focus on student achievement through effective PLC collaboration.

    All of the subsequent DVUSD initiatives help impact, guide, or support student learning and development. We engaged with the community on boundary changes, added more pilot SEL programs and training for students and staff, expanded on-line opportunities and alternative paths through the new Pathways program, and added grade-enhancement for secondary students who perform well on state tests. Our Community Education before and after-school programs expanded by more than 500 students to help our younger ones extend their learning growth.

    Much of 2019 was spent collecting data and input from stakeholders around the special needs programming in DVUSD. An outside agency of experts from the east coast produced a report for the district called the “Future’s Report.” Hundreds of hours and thousands of data points helped define where DVUSD is currently in the dissemination of special education programming and the projected future for improvement or efficiencies in the system. The last half of 2019 was centered on bringing a team of internal experts, interested parties, and staff representatives together through four DVUSD Work Teams to begin the design of a five-year plan to execute the report’s priorities.

    All of DVUSD’s initiatives are focused around impacting student academic performance, knowledge, and personal growth. In the Good to Great book series, Stanford professor Jim Collins writes about how the social sectors of our society (churches, schools, foundations, etc.) must judge themselves “by a body of evidence” and not just one variable. In the business world, more defined variables are present, such as profit or a stock-price. In the education world, we must look for multiple indicators to gauge our path, direction, and level of potential success. DVUSD continues to find data sources that point to a path of academic, influential, and social success. The passage of the Bond and Override ballot measures demonstrated the community’s faith put into our educational journey. The Governor’s Office allocated over a $1,000,000 in 2019 for DVUSD to use for professional development training in the area of PLCs through Project Momentum, as we became a recognized Arizona model suburban school district. The academic results are beginning to reflect the growth as we out-paced the performance of our peer districts (Chandler, Scottsdale, Dysart, Peoria, Paradise Valley, Mesa, Tucson, etc.) and secured the most A schools (24) and the 2nd highest percentage of A & B-rated schools (92%). Five more A+ School Of Excellence awards were granted in 2019 and more will be on their way in the future because of our systemic approach to continuous improvement and the power of PLCs to impact student learning.

    Other pieces of evidence in 2019 included a rating from KTAR as the “second best school district” in all of Arizona, based on their criteria of graduation rate, teacher quality, school funding, student-to-teacher ratio, and standardized test results. Forbes.com released their first-ever “Top 50 state businesses (over 500 employees) to work for in Arizona” and DVUSD was the ONLY school district on the list. Students excelled in the arts, clubs, groups, and teams winning more district, regional, state, and national recognitions – there were more than 30 state titles in total awarded to DVUSD students in academics, team sports, and individual performances in 2019. Sandra Day O’Connor secured the 6A state Softball team title, while the Mountain Ridge Marching Band defeated the reigning champion (five of the last seven years) at the ABODA Championships and scored the highest marks in Division 1 state history. MRHS also won the 4A Marching Band AzMBA Championship. The Deer Valley High School Spiritline won the Show Cheer team state title.

    Our support, teaching, and administrative staff won many awards during 2019 and were celebrated throughout the school year at the Governing Board, school, and district, and state meetings. Some of the highlights were the AZ ELL Teacher of the Year, Eileen Nguyen, from Esperanza, AZ Middle Level Principal of the Year, Matt Hreha of Hillcrest Middle, Maricopa County Exemplary Principal, Tricia Graham of Canyon Springs and Dr. Linda Price-Barry of West Wing, ACTEAZ Career Guidance Counselor of the Year, Denise Darre of Deer Valley High, six AZ Community Education state awards, four AZ Bus Rodeo top-ten state awards, and several National Board Certified teacher additions (with a goal to double the DVUSD total by 2021-2022).

    DVUSD collects district achievements throughout the year and they can be searched on this website under “extraordinary achievements”. In this link, you will find a collection of hundreds of accomplishments by students, staff, and DVUSD schools. One thing is clear: if there is a positive, educational list somewhere in Arizona, DVUSD will be on it – the body of evidence grows every year. Even though one list does not a district make, multiple data points do supply DVUSD with the ability to evaluate our position in the Arizona and national educational landscapes.

    The focus on 2020 began the day we moved into the new decade, January 1. It is apparent that 2020 will be another year of adjustment, as we retool and organize the systemic structures for DVUSD’s successful future. The continuation of PLC learning and training, the creation of a five-year plan to successfully execute the most important objectives in the Future’s Report, and the next phases of planned program initiatives will commence. We anticipate training over 120 teachers to be Model PLC Teachers in 2020 with hundreds more staff members working with the Teaching Clarity Playbook to better understand how to interpret, dissect, modify, and apply learning standards for effective instruction.

    The Grading and Reporting Committee at DVUSD began the examination of the differences and similarities of traditional grading vs. standards-based grading over the last few years.  There is anticipation for a movement towards middle ground in 2020 on how student learning will be measured, perhaps best summed up as a “standards-based grading mindset.” This journey will require time, training, education, and a focus on communication with all impacted groups inside and outside of our system.

    Enrollment is continually a focus in the “new Arizona” where unbridled competition from charter and private schools creates difficulty as millions of public dollars are removed from public schools every year and given to enterprises focused primarily on monetary gain. Reporter Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic recently reported “over 40% of all charter school start-ups have failed in Arizona’s short charter history” because of multiple inadequacies and the lack of taxpayer accountability and oversight – this is not good for Arizona’s students or taxpayers.

    The premise for charter schools in Arizona was established in error from conception – education should not be a for-profit business with taxpayer money, as profits will trump student needs, every time. Many reforms have been suggested by DVUSD to the legislature and executive branch (www.dvusd.org/charterschoolreport) but have been ignored behind the disguise of school choice. The lack of oversight by the legislature continues to breed an environment of charter and private schools putting dollars over students. Did you know when charter schools fail, the owners can take the millions of dollars from the sale of those buildings and furnishings paid for by you, the Arizona taxpayers, and pocket the money? Month after month news reports of corruption or deception involving an Arizona charter school surface and this should not continue without consequences. Elections in November of 2020 will be another statement on whether the choice environment will continue without accountability and transparency, or much-needed oversight will be placed on the charter and private educational systems.

    One of the foundational principles for increasing student enrollment in a choice environment is correctly adjusting to the parental educational wants and needs. Since community members in the DVUSD school district have access to over 35 charter and private schools, DVUSD must adjust to supply the demand of different educational environments – more traditional and specialty schools. Therefore, DVUSD began the repurposing of Bellair Elementary into The Traditional Academy at Bellair in 2019. We will look to convert at least two more schools in the central and northern regions in the coming years to different formats to address demands. DVUSD teachers are superiorly qualified in the subjects they teach and there is no reason why schools such as The Traditional Academy at Bellair will not excel and cut into the charter school enrollment over time. These three conversions will be in concert with building a new elementary school, #31, in the Happy Valley corridor to accommodate growth, and will also spur the start-up paperwork on elementary school #32 with a projected location on the west side of the district to relieve some growing pains in that zone.

    The expansion of the PLCs principles throughout DVUSD, reinforced by Project Momentum, should continue to keep DVUSD near the top of the Arizona educational mountain. Our academic success, influenced by Project Momentum, secured DVUSD, along with Avondale and Wickenburg, a mention in the Governor’s 2020 State of the State address. It is harder to stay on top than the initial climb up the mountain, but we are ready for the challenge. Everyone else is now aiming to knock us off the top post and secondly, DVUSD is more than willing to share any and all of our data, programs, and initiatives with any public school in the state. As more and more districts adopt DVUSD’s approaches, and educators collaborate academically, programmatically, and socially over time across district boundaries, our academic edge should shrink over time if we do not seek to continuously improve. That being said, there is no greater calling for a public school district then helping other public school districts succeed.  The act of sharing raises all students and makes all of our communities better places to live and work.

    The year 2020 will kick off the first year of successfully planning, organizing, and executing the implementation of some of the many programs and initiatives in the Future’s report. The report contains four main areas that will take time to complete. The four work teams will continue to focus on Social Emotional Learning, Academics, Human Capital, and Student Behavior. The purpose of a systemic five-year plan will be to increase regionally-focused SEL programs, expand the continuum of services for special needs students in specific areas, strengthen the delivery of our current programming and special education accountability systems, and adjust/add programs that may be necessary to meet the emotional and behavioral needs of all DVUSD students. This plan has many moving parts, will take years to complete, and will count on a long-term commitment from staff, District leadership, and the Governing Board to successfully execute.

    Securing more resources from the legislature for the education of Arizona’s students will continue to be a top priority for DVUSD into 2020. Although Arizona has moved up the national list of spending dollars-per-student, our ranking in the bottom three in most national educational resource categories is nothing to brag about when it comes to supporting public schools. Arizona can do better, much better. DVUSD is recognized as an influential organization throughout the state for helping to shape statewide educational initiatives, positive legislation, and economic policies. This trend will continue into 2020 and beyond.

    In conclusion, 2019 was another banner year for DVUSD on our march towards educational excellence. We must continue to strive to be the best unified public school district in all of Arizona. As current and future legislative policies begin to shape educational issues in Arizona and favor our charter and private school competition, it is DVUSD’s duty to combat this cancer through our own excellence. The continued execution of our five-year Strategic Plan helps to keep our organizational focus on what is the most important, student success. As elements of our plans and initiatives come to fruition, the district will look to build upon the last success and improve our systems to conquer the next obstacle that is closest, while looking further down the path for future opportunities for excellence. Working hard to have 2020 vision that can learn from the past, see the obstacles directly in front, and peer correctly into the future, DVUSD will be on the path of continuous improvement towards #Extraordinary achievements for all students.

    Curtis Finch, PhD

    Superintendent, Deer Valley Unified School District