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Rep. Udall to ask for $43 million to launch school achievement plan

Rep. Udall to ask for $43 million to launch school achievement plan

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Gov. Doug Ducey plans to expand on a successful pilot program to help close the achievement gap in schools across Arizona, targeting low-income areas with lower-performing students.

He said the state can help close that gap by providing “results-based funding,” most of which will go to poorer areas, notably places with a high rate of kids on free or reduced lunch and tribal nations. The program began in Avondale, Deer Valley and Wickenburg school districts and superintendents presiding over those schools helped craft it.

In the governor’s State of the State Address on January13, he introduced the idea of “Project Rocket” and said he’s working with the chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Michelle Udall, to expand the program.

Michelle Udall
Michelle Udall

According to Udall, R-Mesa, her bill will ask for $43 million – about $150 per student, which is how much schools in Avondale received.

Udall said she and Ducey had been working separately on similar concepts that eventually rolled together after discussions with him and his staff. Ideally, they want to have no failing schools in five years.

Any “D” or “F” schools will automatically qualify, as will any “C” school with at least 60% of its students who receive free or reduced lunch.

“It’s targeted to those kids that have the hardest time, that are in the most difficult situations,” Udall said.

The money will be spent, Udall said, in a way to provide “interventions and grounds” necessary to help pull these students out of poverty and close the achievement gap. Most schools will be able to spend the money how they see fit, but spending for those that are in the failing category or if they’ve consistently scored a “D” over the past five years will be more “regimented,” she said.

“Project Rocket” builds on an idea that was pitched to Ducey in 2015.

Then, Virginia school leaders presented Ducey with a program called Project Momentum, which aims to improve quality of instruction in poorer areas and help students perform better on standardized tests. Ducey, through a partnership with the Challenge Foundation and Avondale Elementary School District, implemented the program district-wide in the 2015-2016 school year.

His office gave $575,000 toward the program that funded grants and stipends for new, experienced and substitute teachers, principals and assistant principals to work during the summer and plan better for the coming school year.

The school district met its goals of having every school in the district increase its overall scores on the AzMERIT test in both reading and math. And most students in the district scored at or above the percentage regression line when comparing their performance in the two topics with students receiving free or reduced lunch.

The district’s AzMERIT English scores increased by 13 points in the 2017-2018 school year, almost double the state growth over the same period. The math scores improved by 18 points, triple the state growth rate during that same period.

At the end of the 2016-2017 year, all schools in the district saw improvement, according to the district, with Avondale narrowing the performance gap to three points in English and two points in math. And, when comparing combined scoring of reading and math district-wide, Avondale Elementary outscored 56% of Arizona districts.

Not much information is known from Ducey’s side of things, at least until his budget proposal is announced on Januayr 17, but the Governor’s Office has at least been in communication with the Department of Education.

A spokesman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said they’ve had “initial conversations” with Ducey’s staff and both sides agree more needs to be done about supporting schools facing greater challenges, but the department was mum on details.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor, said the State Board of Education will oversee the project, not the Department of Education.

In Ducey’s speech, he said the overall idea for “Project Rocket” is straightforward. “[We will] help struggling schools with tools, resources and expertise to produce better results for students.”

Ducey said on January 15 the results of the three school districts where it was tested – and a rollout plan for schools that want in – will be released by his office in the near future.

Staff writer Arren Kimbel-Sannit contributed to this report.