Fifth-grader Molly Kettelle, left, explains a rock-garden station to classmates. The rock garden, one of several play areas students helped design at Manzanita Elementary School, was developed to promote innovative thinking, collaboration and communication.

A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star

Practices that help students prepare for success in school and in the real world have prompted national recognition for Catalina Foothills School District.

On Tuesday the district was named a 21st Century Learning Exemplar by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, or P21, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that connects education, business, community and government leaders.

Catalina Foothills is one of 16 schools and three school districts in the country to have been chosen this year.

“I’m very excited about the fact that this distinction has been awarded to our district because it really does represent the hard work of many people and the support from our community and our parents,” said Mary Jo Conery, the district’s associate superintendent.

The exemplar program is a nationwide effort by P21 to identify and share best practices and models for innovative learning that helps students learn “what real world looks like,” said Tatyana Warrick, a P21 spokeswoman.

Exemplary schools and districts are chosen based on their applications and site visits by P21 representatives. They must demonstrate how innovation is reflected in their pedagogy, curriculum, professional learning for teachers, culture inside schools and what kinds of learning opportunities the kids have, she said.

Catalina Foothills was selected based on its “exemplary engagement with the school board, school site leadership, teacher leaders, parents, community and students,” Warrick said.

The district offers a wide variety of programs and courses that incorporate project- and problem-based learning, Conery said.

That variety, she said, could be one reason that Catalina Foothills stands out.

“We had a rather extensive community group work with our teachers, administrators and students to identify specific skills and performance indicators they believe all students need to be successful in school and after they graduate,” she said.

The district calls those skills “deep learning proficiencies,” which are creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration and communication, citizenship and systems-thinking that encourage students to consider the big picture.

Those proficiencies are integrated into the learning content across disciplines, Conery said. Some programs that demonstrate those qualities are robotics and expert resource, which bring in alumni from different fields to talk to students about their professions.

Another thing that makes Catalina Foothills an exemplar is the level of involvement from teachers, she said.

“Our work is highly driven by our teachers,” she said. “They are the ones that are creating our curriculum.”

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 520-573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com. On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung