Sustaining Success Despite Budget Cuts
How a resource-strapped elementary school became a top-performing school with a homegrown, easy-to-implement differentiated instruction program.
At Mesquite Elementary, the additional half-hour of differentiated instruction every day has helped maintain the highest academic performance in the state, and it keeps teachers like Matthew Hough smiling (right).
Credit: Zachary Fink
It’s over 100 degrees and plumes of monsoon clouds threaten overhead, but inside Mesquite Elementary School, in Tucson, Arizona, teachers and students are cool as glass, and not just thanks to the air-conditioning. It's because they've got a system, and it's a system that works so well, it has propelled Mesquite to Arizona’s highest school rating, “excelling,” for the past eight years and has twice won it the prestigious A+ School of Excellence Award from the Arizona Educational Foundation. All this while on a very, very lean budget. Arizona has the second lowest per pupil spending in the nation, and Mesquite has the lowest per pupil funding in southern Arizona, with administrative costs at half the national average.
The system is called Reteach and Enrich (R&E), and it happens every day, schoolwide, from 12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. During this period, teachers give students who are struggling with a concept extra time and attention, and students who have mastered the basics receive instruction that takes their learning to the next level. The system is based on a shared curriculum map, with objectives defined for every week of the school year. At the end of each week, teachers assess students on those objectives. Depending on the results, they assign students to either a reteach or an enrich session the following week. There is no stigma attached to going to reteach; almost every student has been assigned to it at some point. Students see it simply as an opportunity to learn something better than they did the first time.R&E was spearheaded by former principal Connie Erickson, who founded Mesquite in 1999. When test scores came in showing results as low as the 39th percentile in math in those first few years, she and her staff resolved to make a change.
In the fall of 2002, they created R&E, and began implementing it at the start of 2003. Just six months later, the school had jumped up three levels, from being labeled by the state as a “performing” school to the highest label, “excelling.”
Erickson and her successor, former Mesquite first-grade teacher Katie Dabney, have built and maintained this success with very modest resources that have gotten leaner; last year the state cut the school's capital budget by 75 percent.
So Erickson, who is now principal at another elementary school in the same district, and Dabney have had to become masters of making the most out of not much. When Erickson heard that a cell phone company was looking for a place to erect a reception tower, she negotiated a fee for the company to use her school rooftop for tower space. And though Dabney had to make some tough decisions in the latest round of budget cuts -- she lost an art specialist as well as a P.E., advanced math, and regular classroom teacher -- she and her staff have developed a host of effective money-saving strategies.
Collaboration is Key
Perhaps the toughest challenge of all has fallen to Dabney: How to maintain and grow excellence? In addition to her cost-cutting operational innovations, the 33-year-old marathon runner, who was recently named one of Tucson’s Forty Under Forty top young leaders by the Arizona Daily Star, makes teacher collaboration a top priority.
For R&E to work, teachers must share the responsibility for every child’s education. It’s a schoolwide event. During the half hour each day earmarked for the program, every teacher, including the music teacher and P.E. teacher, is involved in student instruction. Because of this shared ownership, common planning time for teachers is essential, and Dabney has carved out thirty-five minutes in the schedule for teachers every day.
Common planning time is not only built into their daily schedule but also into the very layout of the school. The school was designed to foster collaboration by having grades organized in pods, so classrooms for each grade level are connected by a central common area (see a 360 video of one of their pods here). Here, teachers sit around a small circular table to discuss student progress, evaluate assessments, critique how their lesson plans worked, share new ideas, and plan for Reteach and Enrich.
Dabney has also shepherded the implementation of a groundbreaking district initiative called Beyond Textbooks. It is an online wiki where teachers can share resources, including lesson plans based on the essential standards that Vail’s curriculum department has identified for all grade levels. Because the lesson plans are tested successfully in the classroom by teachers before posting, others can be assured that what they download is top-notch. Says fourth-grade teacher Kirsten Knox, “It cut down my time tremendously. I can go to Beyond Textbooks and not spend hours online trying to find something that fits.”
“We’ve done well,” says Dabney. “But we’re never content with where we are. We never have the attitude that we know everything because then there is nowhere to go but down.” And down, it seems, is not a direction Mesquite is likely to go any time soon.