• State of the District 2021

    Clouds on the horizon were a daily occurrence for me growing up in central Alaska, attending college in Seattle, and living in northern Michigan for over 20 years. If the sun popped out for any length of time, it was going to be a great day. One might even skip an indoor event, as the sun may not return for another couple of days. Living in Arizona has been a different world. Often times, an Arizonan sees a cloud and they get nervous. While a soaking rain is always appreciated, dark clouds in Arizona often mean violent rain, high winds, and flooding following shortly, endangering property and lives in a matter of minutes.

    Most days, Arizona residents believe a cloud does not belong in Arizona – they have good reason to be leery of clouds. Arizona is the “sunniest” location in America, with over 85% of its days filled with sunshine. Seeing the sun every day is normal in Arizona. It is no wonder people flock here for respite! When significant clouds come to our state, the outcome can be severe. The 2020 calendar year recorded some scary clouds and violent storms that most school districts in Arizona could not have anticipated. One could easily argue no one in the world was ready for the storms COVID-19 brought to their section of the globe.

    The purpose of the State of the District document is to remind students, staff, and community members of the path Deer Valley Unified School District  walked upon this past calendar year and the organizational progress that needs to be achieved to be successful in 2021. Unfortunately, this address will be centered on the impact of the global pandemic and DVUSD’s response to it. No community event in 2020 has affected DVUSD more than the COVID pandemic.

    There is good news! DVUSD has been a state leader in influencing other school districts and state agencies to positively journey through this event together. Great people, who resolve to tackle life’s problems together, can accomplish great things! DVUSD is equipped with many such people who desire to collaborate and put student learning at the center of their thinking. Our community also has the same commitment to put learning first as evidenced from the dedication of our Stakeholder group through the COVID-19 storm.

    DVUSD began in January of 2020 with a bang! The district had just surpassed the demographer’s report projections on the number of students who would be attending DVUSD for the third year in a row. In Arizona, the state funding system is directly tied to the number of students enrolled in the school system. Keeping one eye on enrollment is always a prudent task of public school officials. The arrival of COVID-19 brought DVUSD a potential enrollment loss of over 5% of our students in 2020. The pandemic spurred the Governor of Arizona to rush a promise to keep all Arizona school districts “harmless” for financial risks in 2020 and 2021. That fiscal promise never came to fruition, despite DVUSD’s efforts to be a responsible community partner and help Arizona to continue to move forward. The 2020 fiscal school year is not yet completed; stay tuned to see if the legislature and Governor will step in to help schools for the extra pandemic costs, loss of student enrollment, and the necessary interventions needed for students to succeed in the future. The rising pandemic costs to schools and the necessary student-learning interventions to combat up to ten months of learning loss gaps may continue to affect DVUSD even beyond 2021. The true impact of COVID-19 on student learning throughout the world may not be known for decades. There is potential for the Governor to go the same directions as last year and invest dollars into interventions since “learning loss” can be focused more on the most vulnerable students in Arizona.

    Prior to the pandemic, the District was just beginning to revel in the passage of a successful bond initiative, celebrating the progress on the renovation of Bellair Elementary as a Traditional Academy and the completion of the new Union Park School, DVUSD’s first Spanish Immersion school. Plans were even beginning to take shape on starting the evaluation for more improvements to Deer Valley Unified School District facilities.

    DVUSD was hitting its stride on the successful execution of the Strategic Plan with #extraordinary results as the District continued to “R.A.I.S.E. the bar of excellence” every day. Our core values of Respect, Accountability, Integrity, Student-Driven, and Excellence were taking root, permanently embedding themselves into the very culture of school district practices.

    The evaluation of the Futures Report for the improvement of the delivery of Special Education services, and the full integration of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) as the life-blood for everything academic in Deer Valley were both making exponential progress. The teaching and learning momentum was moving forward. Then, storm clouds began forming on the horizon…

    The first hint of clouds in 2020 came from the Maricopa Community Health Department on March 16, the start of DVUSD’s Spring Break. The threat of a worldwide pandemic hit the shores of the United States, and Arizona, in a matter of weeks. Since Arizona is a frequently visited location from America’s heartland during the winter, the state moved quickly to impede the virus’s impact.

    DVUSD immediately restructured its learning environments and made alternate plans for our 38 schools in answer to a little known invisible enemy called COVID-19. The DVUSD Cabinet diligently worked through Spring Break, making plans to complete the necessary teaching, learning, communication, distribution, and support structures for the 2020 school year. They kept reshaping the teaching and learning formats, as more facts became known about the virus. The safety of students, staff, and the community successfully moved DVUSD into a virtual learning environment overnight to finish the 2019/2020 school year. The choices that were made the week of March 16 set up DVUSD’s future success for the next nine months.

    In a matter of days, DVUSD personnel also set up food distribution centers, equipped every student with a technological device, reinforced learning platforms to handle assignment distribution, began online curricula development, and provided additional onsite support for “Free Space” physical learning areas with the help of Community Education, Information Services and Technology (IS&T), Transportation, Nutrition, Nurses, and Maintenance services. Many bus drivers found out how much fun it can be to be a paraprofessional, helping students better understand their schoolwork. DVUSD staff worked together trying to anticipate if these storm clouds on the horizon would turn into a violent Haboob, a rain-soaking Monsoon, an extended storm, or if the storm would quickly pass through – no one knew these answers; all hands were ordered “on deck” to problem solve together and DVUSD staff answered the call.

    Deer Valley Unified made the strategic choice to create PreK-12 online course curricula, tied to the Arizona state standards, and in concert with DVUSD’s own scope and sequence. Many of the state’s school districts scrambled to find a student management platform and spent monies purchasing outside teaching systems, like Florida Virtual, to guide their student learning, a step they would later regret.

    The successful completion of the 2019/2020 school year by July was nothing short of a miracle. Deer Valley Unified showed their expertise, leadership, and cooperation to reach students and families academically, socially, and emotionally through one of the most trying times in recent American history. The external impact of social media and 24-hour news access heightened the urgency and created additional stresses upon school districts around the state to guess correctly about something that little was known about at the time. Experience with other natural disasters, cooperation with other school districts, and assistance from County Health organizations helped DVUSD make calculated guesses that improved the possibility of maximizing both safety and learning.

    The learning success of DVUSD can be traced back to many variables, including the previous integration of Professional Learning Community (PLC) support structures, which created natural connections between staff members. The PLC structures were invaluable when staff isolation became the new normal in 2020. The previous decade of DVUSD’s online experience in the virtual world was instrumental in encouraging a correct structure to Deer Valley K-12 Online Program’s initial and on-going development. The willingness of staff to improvise to the current environment, to help and support each other, and to lean on others outside their immediate circle of influence, proved to be some of the most important pieces of Deer Valley’s success.

    The hard work to develop our own online course curricula would also set up DVUSD to compete with the other online academies of the world in the future. DVUSD would now be able to offer a valid K-12 Arizona diploma, tied to a real, high-achieving, Arizona school district for years to come. The work to start and stay ahead of the staff and students would make the academic lift of brand new online curricula to be one of the most ambitious academic projects in Deer Valley Unified School District’s history. Successful completion of the online project would set DVUSD apart from all of the districts in the state, a calculated chance worth taking. Once the 2020 online structure was in place, building upon it in 2021 would be key to its competition in the marketplace of the future.

    Paraprofessionals, bus drivers, and support staff jumped into different roles, while teaching staff quickly adapted to a completely virtual world, and eventually moved back-and-forth between teaching environments to help maximize student learning – flexible options were at the center of all decisions. Administrators formed teams to solve problems and District Office communication multiplied ten-fold through letters, e-mails, Fireside Chats, web links, parent seminars, webinars, and videos to keep everyone on the same page. Success was spelled, T-E-A-M.

    There were three other major external groups of clouds that brought more waves of storms to DVUSD that were also directly tied to the impact of COVID-19. These three storms greatly influenced DVUSD in 2020, even more than initially anticipated. The three additional storms were: 1) the lack of State Funding for additional pandemic, teaching, and learning costs; 2) the disjointed national financial support that became state controlled; and 3) the state and national political climates asserting local pressure on decision-making at the school district level. All three of these variables were out of DVUSD’s control, but made decision-making at the district level more difficult.

    The Governor initially assured Arizona schools they would be “held harmless” to 98% of the budget that districts had from 2019. That promise did not come to fruition in 2020, since a large portion of the next school year was also completed online, realizing a further reduction to 95% for virtual learning. There are no current indicators that the financial promise of “hold harmless” will be fulfilled in 2021, because of the current political environment.

    A majority of the schools in Arizona saw a major loss of student enrollment after the arrival of COVID and inadequate funding this school year will only multiply the negative impact into 2021 since future budgets are built on “prior year” student numbers and financial support. The inability of the state and national leadership to support education financially under duress for additional expenses brought on by the pandemic put additional pressure on school districts to make difficult choices to keep their systems open and viable for supporting the DVUSD students, staff, and community. The passage of Prop 208 may bring additional dollars into Arizona’s public schools, but the dollars come with so many strings attached on where allocated, will not impact districts until 2023, and will not save Arizona’s school districts from the immediately rising costs of the pandemic.

    Most public school districts, including DVUSD, had higher costs for additional cleaning, supplies, and equipment, personal protective gear for staff and students, and additional screens, masks and shields to improve offices and learning environments. Deer Valley Unified allocated an additional $700,000 to buy individual HEPA air-filtration systems for classrooms and other learning spaces throughout the school district to collaborate with the several other layers of Covid mitigation protocols. Previous choices, made a decade ago, to update air-handling systems throughout DVUSD, fueled by successful Bond campaigns, reassured DVUSD staff and students of an additional layer of safety to the classrooms. The exchanging of fresh air proved to be a vital ingredient for a successful and safe in-person learning environment in 2020.

    Despite all of the outside stormy distractions from the state and national political worlds bearing on DVUSD, the District, its employees, programs, and students continued to win local, statewide, and national awards. The #extraordinary list continued to grow in 2020. Any student in the Deer Valley Unified School District system can “go anywhere” and get the education to “be anyone” they want to be in the future. Despite the unfair competitive advantages given to private and charter schools in Arizona, DVUSD continues to academically outperform their neighbors. Statewide reform in this area is a constant concern for DVUSD with recommendations for change.

    As DVUSD heads into 2021, we are happy to see the clouds from 2020 begin to start moving on; 2020 was not a banner year for significant academic growth - more a year of survival. Nevertheless, from every tough situation, there were lessons learned for the future – 2020 was no exception.

    DVUSD learned at least seven lessons from 2020 that can be taken into 2021: 1) the power of virtual meetings to save time and resources by increasing the consistency of information and professional development; 2) the importance of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) as internal structures in times of crisis to keep learning focused on students; 3) the positive impact of decades of DVUSD passing Bond campaigns – affecting the speed of 1-1 computer distribution and integration, technological infrastructure, and up-to-date air handling systems in school buildings; 4) the importance of DVUSD’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to support staff members during difficult times; 5) the value of increased communication to keep the district aligned and staff and community informed; 6) the commitment to an Arizona-based, aligned, and sequenced virtual K-12 online curricula for future expansion will be invaluable into the future; and 7) the value of Social Emotional Learning for a positive impact upon academics, the well-being of students, and the support of staff.

    As we watch for the clouds of 2020 to dissipate, we know the sun will (eventually) return to Arizona – it always does. There are good indicators DVUSD is on the right path and the sun is about to shine brightly again upon DVUSD. The continuous stream of awards and accolades are positive, but there are other indicators of future success on the horizon for DVUSD. Maricopa County continues to be one of the fastest growing counties in the United States with the DVUSD area ripe for more expansion. The main reasons for this growth? Deer Valley has land, excellent access to freeways to move products, a brand-new northern comprehensive hospital, rapidly expanding housing, and an excellent public school system. All of these variables have attracted some of the largest financial services companies in the country to settle in our area. The positive business environment has also attracted larger corporations, like TSMC, to set up shop over the next few years in northern Maricopa County. Growth is in Deer Valley Unified’s future. When the public school system is built upon excellence, student growth will only propel DVUSD on to the next level.

    Just like every significant storm that passes through Arizona, there is clean up and evaluation to improve practices for the next series of storms. There is no guarantee the impact of the COVID-19 storm will cease to continue to linger over DVUSD for the next few years until all of the proper community and intervention systems are successfully put into place.

    Significant preparation, leadership, coordination, and cooperation helped DVUSD successfully navigate the COVID-19, enrollment, financial, and political storms in 2020. The year 2020 did not witness the end of the COVID storm, but the eye of the storm is beginning to pass and there are brighter days ahead. DVUSD has secured a record of accomplishments in making good, strategic choices throughout 2020 and looks forward to completing the 2021 journey with the same formula into the future – TEAMWORK. The successes from 2020 could not have been possible without the contributions of all 4,000 employees of Deer Valley Unified School District working together for the betterment of students. Thank you to all who helped DVUSD continue to compete as one of the best public school districts in all of Arizona. It is time for the storms to pass and let the sun shine again upon DVUSD!

    Curt Finch, PhD

    Deer Valley Unified School District