George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mesquite Elementary School

Grades 3-5 | Tucson, AZ

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.
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia
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Kids on the playground
At Mesquite Elementary, the additional half-hour of differentiated instruction every day has helped maintain the highest academic performance in the state,.

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.”

Budget Creativity

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. 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.

Watch Reteach and Enrich in action at Mesquite Elementary School.

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.

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

ntcook's picture

I know it is obvious that assessments are important, but as a future teacher, this article and accompanying movie are very inspiring. Judging students' progress or halt of learning by continuing assessments help teachers catch any struggling students before they fall behind. In the movie, Ms. Dabney said that at her school an objective usually lasted for a week or so. I don't know if that would be possible for middle or high school settings to have such a short time per an objective, but I thought it was a good idea to think of a basic time frame so that teachers could decide when to give an assessment as well as to determine the pace of instructions.

It is wonderful that teachers at Mesquite ES have time and space to work collaboratively. I might not be that lucky when I start teaching and work on my own most of the time. However, I would like to use the results of assessments to differentiate my instructions at the end of each objective; I would group my students by their levels of mastery of the object and give small-group instructions to those who did not show their mastery in assessment while giving an activity or reading materials to those who showed their mastery and are ready to move on to the next objective.

After reading the article and watching the movie, I decided to set aside a good chunk of time after each objective/assessment so that every student will move on to the next objective after they master the previous objective and skill. The important part of teaching is caring about students' mastery and completion of an objective and helping them keep moving forward, not merely going through a textbook or curriculum and wishing students good luck on standardized tests.

Sara Adkins's picture
Sara Adkins
Special Education K-5

I think it's great that this school is understanding that it is more important that students actually understand the material than it is to "get through the book". Good for you! My question is, Are you just using this model for math?

Mariko Nobori's picture
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia

Hi Sara - Thanks for your comment! Regarding your question, Mesquite has actually extended this same approach to language arts through a program for vocabulary (called V.E.R.B.), which they started in 2006. Also, here is more info from the principal at Mesquite Elementary: "We began Reteach and Enrich in math because that was our area of need as a school. After seeing the positive results of the program, we have extended the Reteach and Enrich model to Reading and Vocabulary instruction. We call it VERB and it happens everyday (Monday-Thursday) from 10:30-11:00 along with Math R&E from 12:30-1:00. These blocks of time are set aside in our master schedule and considered "sacred." Students needing reteach in math or reading receive that instruction during Math R &E or VERB. However, differentiated instruction in all content areas is necessary and having a specified reteach block for every content area is not feasible due to time constraints. All objectives in all content areas follow a curriculum calendar. To help support all content areas, we have a gifted certified teacher on staff who attends our grade level Data Team meetings which occur twice a month. Her role is to provide enrichment strategies to teachers so that teachers can use those techniques in all content areas. We have focused on strategies like higher order questioning, using graphic organizers that require critical thinking (the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy), model products, etc. For our students needing extra support in content areas, we also have a Student Achievement Teacher on staff. Our SAT leads all Data Team meetings and serves as a resource to classroom teachers. She shares reteach strategies and resources to support classroom teachers with our reteach students. By providing our teachers with the resources they need (including professional development) they have become very effective differentiating their instruction in all content areas."

Bilingual/ESL Programs k-4

Wonderful and thank you so much for sharing. Is just a simple system that I can feel the empowerment from the students and teachers. Rti, tutorials or Saturday school can be compacted into this easy simple system... I'm making the commitment to try it and hope my administrators can see what the difference of 30 minutes a day can do. God Bless! JMtz.

Stephen Obuong''s picture
Stephen Obuong'
High School Biology and chemistry teacher

Wow.The story about mesquite is a real masterpiece. t is challenging and encouraging at the same time. This is collaboration at its best. It underscores the fact that proffesional learning communities (PLCs) is the way to go for the 21st century teacher. The Mesquite study gives credence to the fact that PLcs is not all that complicated as some would like to think.
The Reteach and Enrich is a lovely idea and I think it deserves a national, if not global outreach. It is interesting to note that all students are catered for; that whther they fall at R or E they would still learn something. That is just awesome.
Sure. learners excellenece is not all about a huge budget and this is a wakeup call to all schools-making the best out os what is at hand instead of whiniing about "greener grass".
Perharps one of the main breakthrough with the Mesquite story was the idea of all teachers sharing all learners education. This could be what cretaed this collaborative spirit noted in this blog.
Finally the "beyond text books" initiative is a brilliant idea.
As dabney puts it: You've done well Mesquite, still, never be content with where you are. Never have the attitude that you know everything because then there is nowhere to go but down. Keep showing us the educational blue print. Keep up and well done. That was anice piece to read.

Mel's picture
First Grade

We are trying to implement this at our school. We've been told by our principal to start immediately, but in first grade we're needing some guidance as to how this works. Is there somewhere for me to find more information/videos for our particular grade level? I would really appreciate any help you could offer!
Thank you so much!

Susan's picture

I like the idea of Reteach and Enrich, I believe it is a good strategy, that I will bring forward in my PLC meeting this week or try it within my own classroom with my teacher Aid. Thank you for this inspiring idea.

Jessica Aycock's picture
Jessica Aycock
Pre K Teacher from Atlanta, Georgia

This post inspired me! I truly believe that collaboration is key, especially when it comes to success in schools. Collaboration with other teachers, other staff, parents, and the community can help impact student learning. I am going to share the idea of the R&E plan with my co-workers. What a great post!

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