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Innovating Arizona classrooms

Kindergarteners in Virginia Araujo's Spanish immersion class at Desert Willow Elementary School in Cave Creek Unified School District practice the language by lining up all the months on their cards in the correct order. (Photo courtesy of Cave Creek Unified School District.)

Kindergarteners in Virginia Araujo’s Spanish immersion class at Desert Willow Elementary School in Cave Creek Unified School District practice the language by lining up all the months on their cards in the correct order. (Photo courtesy of Cave Creek Unified School District.)

Sometimes it’s a response to a problem, like low achievement, which spawned the idea of a longer school year.

Once it came from a simple conversation, when a parent asked a principal if she was familiar with language immersion. That was the spark for a language program that brings in children from across school boundaries.

Or it can come from somewhere else, as it did at the East Valley Institute of Technology, whose superintendent, Sally Downey, brought a model for training blue-collar workers from a previous job in Oklahoma.

But no matter the origin, innovation is flourishing in Arizona classrooms, whether they are in affluent neighborhoods in Phoenix or amidst the poverty of remote Indian reservations.

Following are examples of how Arizona public schools have found a new way of doing things and what these innovations are accomplishing.


Jana Miller, who heads the World Languages program at Cave Creek Unified School District, said the experience of most people has been to take three or four years of a foreign language in high school or college. The problem is that most people who have gone that route still can’t speak a second language.  Yet schools continue with the practice.

Miller was principal of Desert Willow Elementary School in 2003 when a parent came into her office and asked if she was familiar with language acquisition with young children, a concept Miller knew nothing about. Language acquisition involves the process of learning a language.

“She said, ‘Little kids can pick up a language much quicker than adults,’” Miller said.

That conversation prompted a trip to Utah to tour language immersion schools where students spent half their day learning math or science in a second language without translation.

“Those little-bitty kids picked it up quickly, so we came back and started a program like that at Desert Willow,” Miller said.

Half of the Desert Willow students are in a language immersion program, at the choice of their parents, and the other half take a weekly 90-minute language class. From third grade on students are expected to respond in the target language.

All students in the Cave Creek Unified School District, K-12, are taught language, and middle-school students are required to take either Spanish, French or Chinese, while their peers in other school districts typically are offered language as an elective. There is no state requirement regarding foreign language.

Miller said one of the “good problems” for the district is accommodating all of the high school freshmen who are testing into advanced high school language courses.

Miller said Utah, which has more than 200 immersion schools, sees the program as economic development — a way of luring companies from around the world to the state. Arizona now has at least eight with similar programs, and in this day of making students “college and career ready,” the language fluency helps take care of the career part.

“These kids are going to have an edge on other people, we know that,” Miller said.


The days are nearing an end for students to be issued a 10-year-old textbook that is taped together, missing pages and filled with photos enhanced with hand-drawn beards and eyeglasses.

Since 2011, Wickenburg Unified School District has been part of a growing trend in the initial stages called FlexBooks. They are free digital publications developed by foundations, other school districts, teachers or whatever the case may be, that school districts can download and modify to meet Arizona’s teaching standards.

Superintendent Howard Carlson said the books have several benefits, the first of which is cost.

Carlson said a district can print a copy for about $4.75, compared to $80 to $100 per textbook, most of which are developed with California or Texas learning standards in mind.

He said teachers typically use only 35 percent of a textbook.

Keeping the FlexBook in digital form costs nothing. But there are some costs in modifying them to meet the local standards. The cost savings can go toward tablets, Carlson said.

Carlson said former Sen. Rich Crandall, who is now director of the Wyoming Department of Education, introduced him to the concept. They went to a national conference in Utah, where the use of the books is more prevalent, and Wickenburg teamed with Glendale, Dysart and Peoria school districts to develop their own FlexBooks.

Carlson said another benefit is that teachers or schools can add or delete materials. For instance, a teacher could insert a new graph that is better suited for a lesson than the old graph. Students also can access the books from tablets, home computers or print a PDF version.

Carlson said the printed version actually helps in learning retention because a student can make notes in the margins or highlight sections.

200 DAYS

The kids in the Littleton Elementary School District were performing a little below average on achievement tests, so a few years ago the school board added hours to the day and saw scores rise.

This school year students in the West Valley district have the equivalent of an additional 20 days of school a year, said Superintendent Roger Freeman.

“The idea (is) that time allocated to instruction positively impacts student achievement,” Freeman said.

Only a few districts and charter schools in the state have a 200-day school year.

Freeman said that a student who starts as a kindergartner and finishes eighth grade will have experienced an additional school year.

Freeman said additional days cut the summer break in half, which for economically disadvantaged students — four out five Littleton students get free or reduced lunch — is a boon. He said studies have shown that students from affluent families who can afford summer activities like camp or vacations have better retention than students from lower socio-economic families who don’t have the money for such activities.

The extended calendar is just one of a package of programs the district is using to increase student achievement. They include all-day kindergarten and a one-on-one computer program.

“We’re not a big prosperous community, but we have leaders who have aspiration and vision and the extended calendar is just part of that,” Freeman said.


The East Valley Institute of Technology, or EVIT, doesn’t have the money to buy the latest and greatest equipment for training future auto mechanics, fire fighters, or cosmetologists, but the school has benefited from partnerships with nearly 40 industries to get what it needs.

Janice Parker, the school’s director of business partnerships, said Superintendent Sally Downey brought the partnership model with her from her previous job in Oklahoma, which has schools like EVIT all over the state.

For instance, Hunter Engineering, a supplier of equipment used in repairing the undercarriage of trucks and cars, provides and installs equipment for the automotive repair lab. The company then sends its employees to the school for training without charge.

Parker said, “In exchange for that we get to use equipment that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to purchase with school funds that are non-existent through budget cuts and so forth.”

She said the school has other similar agreements.

Each industry also offers internships and externships through EVIT and has an advisory council.

“More importantly, we want to make sure the training that we offer matches what they need,” Parker said.


Dysart Unified School District has been on the forefront of the evolving state of instructional technology.

Michelle Benham, director of instructional technology for the district, said the first step in the evolution was just teaching students and teachers how to use a specific tool, such as a word processing program. The next step was teaching skills. For instance, manipulating a word processing program no matter which one it was.

“Now, our focus really is the mindset of the future of the workforce and learning and that technology isn’t something that just a few people can be good at or know,” Benham said. “Technical literacy, some would argue, is as important as reading literacy.”

She said cell phones are now recognized as valuable learning tools, as opposed to when they first came out and schools considered them a distraction to learning. Dysart has set up school policies and protocol to allow students to use their cell phones in learning.

“We have a different type of learner in our schools right now,” Benham said. “Students have grown up with technology so their expectations how to access information and what they do with information is different than the students we used to have.”

10 programs that typify innovation in Arizona schools

Where: Cave Creek Unified School District

What: World Languages Program (language immersion)

Highlights: In the Child’s Play Preschool on the Desert Willow Elementary School campus, children participate in a preschool curriculum that is taught 100 percent in Spanish.  Children must be at least 3 years old.  The program is available to all Cave Creek Unified School District students. Goals developing an understanding, appreciate and positive attitude toward other cultures.

Where: East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) in Mesa

What: High School Boot Camp Vocational Education Partnership

Highlights: High school students who are curious about careers in 3D animation, culinary arts and other career and technical education programs can try out a free class Saturday, Feb. 1 at EVIT Boot Camp.  Eighteen programs at the East Valley Institute of Technology, in Mesa will offer classes so freshmen, sophomores and juniors from East Valley high schools can experience what an EVIT class is like.

Among other things, Boot Camp classes will be offered in 3D animation, automotive, collision repair, computer repair, cosmetology, culinary arts, early childhood education, massage therapy, radio/audio production, welding, and fashion, interiors and textiles.

Where: Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix

What:  Healthier Schools Nutrition Program

Highlights:  The district has adopted a “model competitive foods policy’’ that has “opened up a dialogue with parents and staff about healthy eating.’’  (Competitive foods are those sold in competition with the federal meals program.)  With our competitive foods policy in place, we are examining all of the ways our students have access to food and beverages to make sure they always have healthy options… Our experience has shown that school leadership can play a positive role in helping increase opportunities for students to consume healthy foods and beverages.’’

Where: Vail School District southeast of Tucson

What:  Beyond Textbooks

Highlights:  Rather than depending on textbooks for instruction, the program “takes a variety of easy-to-use web-based tools’’ and connects them to the district’s curriculum. Teachers’ lessons are linked to web pages that are best suited to their style of teaching. Teachers add their most successful lessons to web pages for the benefit of other teachers.  The program has spread to other schools, primarily in rural Arizona, such as the Wickenburg Unified School District.

Where: Catalina Foothills Unified School District north of Tucson

What:  21st Century Learning Schools

Highlights:  The district is measuring students’ growth in seven skills considered essential for the 21st century: critical and creating thinking; cultural competence; communication; systems thinking; self-direction; leadership; and teamwork. The goal is to integrate new technology into the curriculum and engage students in learning and applying knowledge in real world contexts.

Where: Blackwater Community School in Coolidge

What: FACE (Family and Child Education) Program

Highlights:  The family literacy program is designed for Native American famlies enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education schools. The home-based education focuses on children up to 3 years old with home visitation from certified parent educators. The early childhood education offers instruction in language, math and local culture.  Blackwater, which has offered the program for more than 10 years, is one of several dozen BIE schools that offer it.

Where: Humboldt Unified School District in Prescott Valley

What:  S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts and math enrichment program.

Highlights:  The approach is similar to science programs in other schools, except with the addition of art. Mountain View Elementary School students in the first- through sixth-grade learn about math, science and engineering as they create art projects, ranging from Eskimo masks to advanced knitting.

Where: Littleton Elementary School District in Avondale

What:  200-day Calendar of Learning

Highlights:  School started July 22 and will end June 12. The district’s board voted to add 20 additional days of learning, which amounts to a full year of extra instructional days for students who start in kindergarten and complete the eighth grade.  The goal is to give students an advantage over neighboring districts and better prepare them for high school, college and careers.

Where: Dysart Unified School District, covering parts of Glendale, Surprise and other West Valley communities.

What: Technology Program

Highlights: The goal is to help students become “technologically literate life-long learners who develop strategies to collect and analyze data, solve problems, increase productivity and communicate ideas, enabling success personally and professionally as global citizens.’’ The district develops the skills through experiences that foster collaboration and critical thinking, including providing access to quality digital content.

Where: Rodel Foundation of Arizona in Scottsdale

What: Exemplary Principals and Aspiring Principals

Highlights:  “With the shortage of potential principals looming, the Rodel Foundation of Arizona created the Rodel Exemplary Principal Initiative to recognize the success of Arizona’s most exceptional principals and to train the next generation of school leaders.’’

The principals are chosen from high-need schools that have a history of high student achievement.  The aspiring principals, who could include teachers or assistant principals, reflect traits found in our exemplary principals. In the two-year program, exemplary principals provide aspiring principals with mentorship, training and communication “that supports the link between effective school leadership and increased student achievement.’’

— Sources: Education consultant Nedda Shafir and the Arizona School Boards Association; websites and other background information for individual schools and programs. 

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