It’s no secret that schools in lower-income communities face additional challenges and tend to struggle more, but a new data analysis shows that some schools in the state, including some in the Tucson area, are beating the odds.

The average graduation rates at more than 80 high-performing Arizona schools in low-income communities were nearly as high as high-performing schools in higher-income communities, an analysis commissioned by A for Arizona, an education nonprofit , showed.

Some of the Tucson-area schools considered to be beating the odds are: Academy of Math and Science, Amerischools Academy, Presidio School and Carrillo K-5 Magnet, C.E. Rose and Drachman elementary schools in the Tucson Unified School District.

“The ones that succeed in low-income areas are hugely tied to their communities,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, the organization’s executive director and former state schools chief. “It’s unbelievably difficult work, but it’s replicable.”

In 2014, the education nonprofit identified 86 high-performing, low-income schools and wanted to see how those schools compare to the rest of Arizona’s public schools. A for Arizona commissioned an independent data firm to collect and analyze all publicly available education data in Arizona.

Some of the findings include:

  • While graduation and dropout rates were similar, low-income students in high-performing schools were not going to college at the same rate as high-income students;
  • Large numbers of high-performing schools are still in high-income areas;
  • Better-performing schools are growing faster than worse-performing ones;
  • Teacher retention at high-performing schools is at an optimal level of about 10 to 15 percent.

A for Arizona’s mission is to take what’s working in those schools and replicate the success in other low-income schools.

So what do the exemplary low-income schools have in common? “Very little in terms of instructional pattern, but a lot in terms of culture,” Keegan said.

The 86 Arizona schools shared high expectations for staff and students, high levels of community outreach, and frequent assessment and targeted intervention, she said. The staff of those schools were also found to be spending extra unpaid time working toward those goals.

But Keegan said she realizes it’s not fair to expect people to work for free. “It’s kind of missionary work at that point.”

The way other schools in the state can replicate the culture that fosters success in low-income schools is to empower teachers and leaders, she added.

“You really have to empower the people who teach others because schools are much more than an exactly perfect curriculum or instructional methodology,” she said. “They are cultures. They are communities.”

CaRrillo’s success

At Carrillo K-5 Magnet School downtown — an A-rated school both by the state and A for Arizona — groups of fourth-graders were filling in the outlines of monarch butterflies with red, orange and yellow colored pencils.

Right about now is when monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico, said Elsmarie DeMars, a visual-arts teacher at Carrillo. DeMars, who has been at the school for 11 years, tries to tie in what the kids are learning in social studies or science classes into art classes.

“I’m incorporating all these things in when I can,” she said.

Partnerships and collaboration among teachers are a big part of the reason Carrillo has seen the success it has, despite the challenges its students face, said Lori Conner, the school’s principal.

The school, which serves about 290 students, has a free and reduced lunch rate of 71 percent, she said. Nearly 80 percent of Carrillo’s students are Hispanic and didn’t make the diversity requirements ordered by the court in TUSD’s desegregation case.

But Carrillo, unlike six other TUSD schools that also did not make the requirements, did not lose its magnet status, which comes with additional funding that enables some programs, such as the visual-arts class, in part because its students are excelling academically.

The key to Carrillo’s academic performance lies in the school’s community, which includes teachers, staff and families, Conner said. It helps that the school is smaller; she’s also been at Pistor Middle and Safford K-8 schools, and the size of those schools made it hard to get to know every kid.

Both the teacher and student attrition rates are fairly low — Carrillo started the school year with just two teacher vacancies in a time where TUSD as a district was facing hundreds.

“Everyone knows each other,” she said. “Everyone is accountable for each other.”

While the fourth-graders were coloring their hearts out in art class, Carrillo’s fourth-grade teachers were taking that time to talk to one another at the professional learning community, a room designated for teacher collaboration.

The teachers sat down with a representative from the Pima County School Superintendent’s Office for a debriefing on the fourth-graders’ assessment from the day before. They were analyzing their mistakes and giving feedback.

Teacher leaders are critical for schools’ success, said H.T. Sanchez, TUSD’s superintendent. By “teacher leader,” he said he means teachers who step up from their teaching duties to also help inexperienced or struggling teachers.

At Carrillo, Sanchez said he has seen those teacher leaders. The school, alongside Drachman and C.E. Rose, also has a heavy focus on early literacy and a deep understanding of each child by the teachers.

Carrillo and Drachman, which are close in distance and share attendance boundaries, are relatively small schools. But C.E. Rose has about 900 students, which the superintendent said is an indicator that bigger schools can have individual connections with their students, too.

But those three schools’ success isn’t easily replicated, he said he realizes. Many other TUSD schools with similar demographics do not excel as much even with great teachers.

The primary challenge is identifying people, he said. Great teacher leaders often do not want to be principals or administrators, nor can they just be picked up and moved around to struggling campuses to transform them.

“I really think we all need to do a better job in identifying those teacher-leader types and figure out how we can encourage them to take those secondary roles of teaching their peers more seriously,” he said.

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