District: Topock Elementary School District
Area Served: Topock (northwestern corner of state)
The 141-student, rural, isolated Topock Elementary School District has been preparing for and implementing new and potentially expensive teaching methods and a computer-based assessment. The keys have been collaboration paired with some timely technology grants.
John Warren, the superintendent and principal, is the only district official interviewed for these stories to say that his district is technologically prepared to give the PARCC test today. His secret to preparedness rests in his dedication to getting technology in the hands of his students and securing grants of money and computers from two utility companies.
His specific focus on literacy and technology for his students, who he says are from a community with a 90 percent poverty rate, came from his own experience attending high-quality military schools growing up. “That opened up doors for me and the boys in my family. The equalizer was literacy and athletics for me. For today’s kids, it’s literacy and technology.”
He echoed the familiar sentiment that the biggest challenge in switching to Common Core is funding. Despite that, he said the school is implemented 100 percent. To achieve that, Warren used a mix of spirited lobbying and collaboration.
To prepare his teachers to teach the new standards, Warren wanted to participate in a Common Core training math program from the Rodel Foundation. However, when he first learned of the program a couple of years ago, it wasn’t offered in anywhere near Topock. So he took action.
“When I found out about the MAC-Ro Math program, I immediately went on the offensive,” Warren said. “I was able to – I don’t want to say strong-arm – but I was able to get them to open up the program outside of the Valley.”
In his continuing battle against the cost-prohibitive nature of implementing Common Core, Warren looked to his “sister district,” Congress Elementary School District, which he eventually partnered with to get a neuroscience- and computer-based math program at a steep discount.
“The program was cost prohibitive at $50,000 per school site,” he said. “Well, that certainly isn’t going to work in rural, isolated small-school Topock, Arizona.” The school’s superintendent wrote a grant including Topock, so the school ended up with a high-level mathematics program “at a 90 percent discount,” Warren said.
To round out his Common Core teacher training, Warren looked to what top districts were doing, and emulated them. For him, that was the Beyond Textbooks Program developed and used by Vail Unified School District near Tucson.
“The No. 1 academically ranked school district in Arizona last year was Vail. I’m guessing about 25 percent of districts have jumped on board with Beyond Textbooks. It has essentially taken the guesswork out,” Warren said.
The “guesswork” to which he is referring is combing through the programs offered to district officials like him that promise to get districts ready for Common Core.
Warren confidently reiterates that his district is prepared and he is doing everything within his ability to ready his students for success, but he knows he can’t “strong-arm” everything.
“Whatever politics or funding issues come up, we don’t have a lot of control over that. Here at the local level our focus is to educate children,” he said. “When the test comes around, they’ll be ready to go.”