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Stories from Arizona classrooms tell us what’s at stake

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Visiting schools in each of Arizona’s 15 counties has helped me stay connected to the needs and concerns of our state’s public education community and better lead the Arizona Department of Education. During the 83 school visits of my first year in office, I’ve had the opportunity to ask school leaders the important questions: What are you most proud of?  What makes your school unique? How are you covering your special education services and costs? How can the department best serve you?

But visiting Arizona’s school communities also gives me the chance to hear stories directly from students, teachers, and administrators. When people ask me about the state of education in Arizona, I use these stories to illustrate what is happening in classrooms across our state.

Kathy Hoffman

Kathy Hoffman

I share, for example, about my trip to the Navajo Nation where I met a beloved welding teacher whose students had won regional prizes for their work. The teacher told me that he could easily make a six-figure salary working in the private sector, but he returns to the classroom each year to give his students the skills they need to build their own successful careers.

I share that in Nogales I visited a bilingual charter school where students who are acquiring English thrive in an environment that values their culture and immerses them in Spanish. When I asked these students about their dreams and goals, their answers blew me away. “We aren’t the leaders of tomorrow,” one eighth grader told me. “We are the leaders of today.”

I share that here in Phoenix I received a letter from a high school student concerned about suicide awareness and the mental health needs of her classmates. When I invited her to speak before the State Board of Education, she spoke about losing a teammate to suicide and the work she is doing to raise awareness about the importance of mental health in her own community.

But I also share about the stark inequities I’ve seen between counties, districts, and schools – from crumbling school facilities to a lack of reliable transportation in many areas. If the achievements of our teachers and students tell us about all the good things happening in our schools, they also tell us what’s at stake.

With one-fifth of all teaching positions unfilled across Arizona, we cannot afford to lose more education professionals to other states and to other industries. It’s why we’ve built an Educator Recruitment & Retention Team at the Department of Education. This new team is dedicated to bolstering our teacher pipeline and keeping our current educators in the classroom. It’s also why we have partnered with the Department of Economic Security in our efforts to fill critical support positions – a partnership that led to over thirty new hires in Mesa Public Schools in just two months and one that we’re excited to see expanded to other districts.

These efforts are just a start, and the raises provided through the 20X2020 plan were a major step in the right direction – but we must do more to provide regionally competitive pay for all our educators and education professionals. Student achievement is directly tied to having qualified teachers in every classroom, and the professionals needed to support the work of educating our students in every school.

Secondly, as the only state in the country with an “English-only” education law on the books, we continue to hold back our multilingual learners. Last February, I was thrilled to see strong bipartisan support for the reduction of the 4-hour English Language Learner block to two hours. But we must go further – the antiquated “English-only” law deviates from research and evidence-based best practices and disadvantages our EL students. Repealing “English-only” has strong bipartisan support and would benefit students across our entire state. I fully support the efforts by Representative John Fillmore, Democratic leaders, and community organizers to refer this issue to the ballot.

And lastly, with rising rates of mental health challenges among students, we must continue to invest in the resources our school needs to keep our students healthy and safe. We took an incredible step forward this past year by expanding the School Safety Program to include school counselors and social workers for the first time. But a gap in funding persists. More than 900 schools applied for $97 million worth of school safety positions. And while over 380 schools received funding this year, we must provide every school with the safety resources they need. Schools shouldn’t have to compete to provide safe learning environments that support the social and emotional needs of students.

Looking back on what we’ve accomplished in 2019 gives me hope for the work ahead. But it’s our school communities that give me the real optimism, which is why I will continue to elevate their stories and use them to inform the work we do. In 2020, we must see to it that our committed educators and passionate students have the resources and support they need to be successful.

Kathy Hoffman is Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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