Professional Learning

Why We Celebrate School Successes When Education Seems to Be Going to Hell

With hard work and plenty of district support, Mesquite Elementary School has proven that budget cuts don’t have to mean the end of excellence. 

October 6, 2011
Credit: Zachary Fink

When the prospects for education seem bleak and when new waves of school budget cuts and finger pointing at teachers and their union reps seem to fill the airways, it feels odd -- even uncomfortable -- to be focused on what's succeeding in education. It's a little like hailing the miner who manages to claw his way out of the collapsed mine shaft while his coworkers remain trapped inside.

But we can't stop illuminating what's working, just as we can't stop fighting to get all schools at least the minimum they need for a shot at success. How we define success may vary -- building 21st-century learning skills, closing the achievement gap, reinventing the learning process. But the tonic effect of success on teachers does not change. Everywhere we go, we hear it: There is no greater reward than knowing you have enhanced a child's chances of succeeding in life. And it is nothing short of amazing what educators will do to propel their students forward. This month's Schools That Work installment features Mesquite Elementary School, in Tucson, Arizona, and offers an eloquent case in point.

Mesquite stands on the bottom rung of the budgetary ladder. It is located near the desert community of Vail, one of the lowest-resourced districts in southern Arizona, where statewide per pupil spending is the second lowest in the nation. And yet Vail, with Mesquite as its beacon, boasts the state's highest academic success and is the state's top performing district, according to Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal.

The reasons are many, but none is more impactful than the school's instructional strategy, called "Reteach and Enrich." Developed and perfected by a savvy band of teachers and administrators, Reteach and Enrich has ensured that every student receives differentiated instruction and the opportunity to learn every lesson at the pace he or she needs to master it.

The key to this method is creating the time for extra instruction. Every day at Mesquite, there is a half-hour set aside specifically to review or enhance the previous week's curricular objectives. (To learn more about how Reteach and Enrich works, watch our video and read the article.)

The effects have been transformative. The performance at all grade levels has increased. And fifth graders, who have been in the program the longest, have seen their scores on the state standards math test increase from 61 percent of students meeting or exceeding the standards to 94 percent.

With those kinds of results, it didn't take long for Vail District superintendent Calvin Baker to see to it that Reteach and Enrich was implemented district wide. District scores for middle school and high school students (measured in grades 8 and 10, respectively) have shot through the roof, increasing 300 percent.

For all it has done to improve learning, Reteach and Enrich can't stop the destructive impact of the worsening economy and the rancor that has come with it. Mesquite has had to let four teachers go: an art specialist as well as a P.E., advanced math, and regular classroom teacher. In addition, class sizes have gone up, teacher prep time has been reduced, and Vail teachers and district staff have not received a raise since 2009. Educators at Mesquite have developed some pretty good tactics for softening some of the budgetary blows. But even a local ballot measure to sustain school funding in this, the highest-performing district in the state, failed last year when antitax advocates mobilized to oppose it. The measure is up for another hotly contested vote this November.

With all that said, the educators at Mesquite Elementary are feeling the wind at their backs and are going forward knowing they have achieved something no budget cutter can eliminate -- and no overheated politician can diminish or ignore. They have moved the needle for their children, making good on why they became teachers in the first place.

Is there something each of us can do to move the needle in our school or district, something we can craft with the collective skills and savvy in our immediate midst? I am guessing the answer is yes, and I'm guessing many of you are doing it already. And if not, perhaps now is the time.

School Snapshot

Mesquite Elementary School

Grades 3-5 | Tucson, AZ
601 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$6252 School$6815 District$7609 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
31% Hispanic
7% Black
5% Asian
1% Other

12% special needs
3% English-language learners

Data is from the 2010-11 academic year.

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  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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