Academic gains have been made in schools across the state, with more earning letter grades of A and fewer falling into the B, C and D range, data released from the Arizona Department of Education on Monday show.

The same cannot be said for Pima County, however, where the number of traditional, district schools earning A’s decreased and the number of B, C and D schools remained about the same.

No schools have been dubbed failing by the Department of Education as it allows an appeals process to run its course. However, an Arizona Daily Star analysis shows five campuses that have earned grades of D three years in a row, making them eligible to receive an F this year.

The at-risk schools hail from the Tucson and Sunnyside unified school districts, the first- and second-largest districts in Southern Arizona. TUSD and Sunnyside again received lower marks than most of the other Pima County school districts, earning grades of C.

The at-risk schools are Lawrence Intermediate and Maldonado Elementary of the Tucson Unified School District, and Sunnyside’s Los Ranchitos Elementary and Challenger and Chaparral middle schools.

Last year, four Tucson schools were at risk of being labeled failing, including Los Ranchitos, but only one ultimately received the label. A final determination on the failing schools should be made before the end of the month.

The letter grades are based on the weighting of student performance on the AIMS test and student academic growth from year to year, along with additional points awarded for high English-language-learner reclassifications and significant reductions in dropout rates.

Across Arizona public schools, including charters, about 20 percent improved a letter grade, 63 percent maintained their grades and 17 percent earned lower marks.

More than 300 schools improved by one letter grade, while 38 jumped up two letter grades, the Arizona Department of Education said.

“The majority of Arizona schools are doing quite well,” said Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal. “Arizona’s schools are improving.”

While Tucson’s largest school district saw significant strides in letter grades last year, little overall progress was made this time around.

The district’s new leader, H.T. Sanchez, is not concerned, however, saying TUSD’s ability to maintain its previous performance in a time of transition should be commended.

“When I came in at the end of last year, they were looking for 227 teachers, brand-new administration, and they just finished closing schools and laying off people,” Sanchez said. “My job was to not lose ground. With all of that flux and all of that change, one would anticipate that you’d see a lot more A’s drop to B’s and C’s drop to D’s, but we stabilized the system.

“I’m very proud of our students, teachers and administration for the work they did coming out a very challenging year.”

TUSD maintained the same number of A schools, had fewer B and C schools and added one D school, but a number of campuses scored individual wins, including Johnson Primary, which went from an F school last year to a C-rated campus this year.

Intensive intervention efforts that included visits from administration at least four times a month made all of the difference, as well as the introduction of a new principal, Sanchez said.

Other equally notable achievements were seen at Drachman Primary Magnet School, which went from a C last year to an A; Marshall and Tolson elementary schools went from earning D’s to B’s; Banks, Davidson and Vesey elementary schools, Vail Middle and Cholla High rose from C to B grades; and Oyama Elementary rose from a D to a C school.

Catalina High School, which earned D’s three years in a row, improved to a C. The campus serves a high population of poor, refugee students and was essentially counted out by TUSD when it came to the possibility of earning a higher grade this year. As a result, TUSD fired then-Principal Rex Scott despite objections from Catalina families and community members.

Perhaps the largest turnaround in TUSD came from Palo Verde Magnet High School, now an A school after going through a turnaround model in 2011, replacing the administration and staff due to poor academic achievement.

Palo Verde Principal Eric Brock has been on the journey with the east-side school for much of his life, having walked the halls there as a student and serving in various capacities for 12 years. Though the challenge in 2011 may have seemed too great to overcome for some, Brock has been waiting for the day to say that Palo Verde is one of TUSD’s top schools.

“I’ve always had the underdog attitude — given the opportunity I was going to show everyone in the world what we can do,” Brock said. “Our faculty has high expectations, and our students have eaten that up and run with it.”

Not all campuses have a success story to share this year, however, as some lost ground. Schools including Cavett, Erickson, Holladay, Pueblo Gardens, Utterback, Valencia and Santa Rita all went from being C schools to D schools.

Interventions like those implemented at Johnson, as well as transformational efforts at some campuses, will work to raise the schools back up, Sanchez said.

Sanchez noted that most of the struggling campuses have had interim principals and midyear changes. Santa Rita, for example, had three different leaders in six months. He is confident the right leadership combined with the extra help will result in better scores.

Sunnyside had seven schools improve their letter grades, 12 that maintained the previous year’s performance, and three whose grades dropped.

Tucson’s second-largest district attributed the performance to the fact that it has begun implementing Common Core curriculum, which is not aligned to AIMS.

“As our schools and teachers have encountered huge shifts in what students need to be able to know, do and apply in relevant

real-world settings, our focus has been on the implementation of the Arizona Career and College Readiness Standards,” said Jan Vesely, deputy superintendent of Sunnyside, in a prepared statement.

Meanwhile, Amphitheater, Flowing Wells and Sahuarita either maintained their letter grades or improved slightly.

The Vail School District, Catalina Foothills and Tanque Verde were named three of the top districts across the state, an honor that Vail attributes to proven instructional practices, outstanding staff, community support, and solid leadership at the school, district and board levels.

The Marana School District saw a significant decrease in A schools, going from six to one, and gaining five B schools. Marana Superintendent Doug Wilson cited a similar concern as Sunnyside.

“It is extremely difficult to measure the progress of student achievement when we are still using a state assessment instrument (AIMS) not aligned with the standards our teachers are required to teach,” Wilson said.

Unlike Sunnyside, Marana earned an overall grade of B.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.