A new TUSD school, opened in 2011 with high academic expectations, is grappling with improving its performance.

After getting a D rating last year, Mary Belle McCorkle Academy of Excellence K-8 is now overhauling part of its educational model.

District officials recognized the need for a major makeover after benchmark and testing data showed students were making little progress toward being prepared for the high-stakes AIMS test, said TUSD Assistant Superintendent Maggie Shafer.

When it opened two years ago, the southwest-side school had a vision of preparing students for a rigorous college-preparatory high school.

To achieve that vision, the school implemented a multiage model in which teachers taught two grade levels simultaneously - a task that has proved to be difficult with a large population of students.

"Multiage is a viable and strong pedagogical approach," Shafer said. "However, you need training, and a good portion of the staff at McCorkle is fairly new to teaching."

The multiage model at McCorkle groups kindergarten and first-graders, second- and third-graders, and fourth- and fifth-graders in combined classrooms. Sixth and seventh graders are separated.

Next year each grade will have its own classroom.

Plans to eliminate the multiage model came after parents and teachers were surveyed. Parents were split on keeping the model. Teachers supported scrapping it, but were willing to continue trying if that was what parents wanted, McCorkle Principal Elizabeth Redondo said.

Redondo expects focusing on one grade level rather than two will boost academic achievement.

Other models in use at McCorkle include dual language and project-based learning.

With the multiage approach, the learning boundaries are less distinct because you have two different age levels working on the same concepts. Teachers have to differentiate their instruction to hit both ages.

Lesson plans for those classes are challenging because sometimes the standards align perfectly and are similar, but other times they're very different.

"When executed well, it becomes a stimulating environment with challenging content," Shafer said. "It benefits students, families and teachers.

"But to start out at all grade levels was probably a large undertaking that may have been over-ambitious," Shafer said.

Despite the challenges, families are not fleeing, Redondo said. The school is expected to be at or near its 970 capacity next year.

"People still have trust and faith in us and are very attracted to the school," she said.

Redondo, who has been hailed as an exemplary principal, knew there would be bumps in getting a new school off the ground.

Seventy percent of students at McCorkle, 4455 S. Mission Road, came to the campus through open enrollment, arriving from many different neighborhoods, districts, charter and private schools with varying abilities.

"They took everybody who walked in the doors, and they had to create a sense of community," Shafer said.

Redondo and Shafer are confident that good things are coming.

"There is individual student growth," Redondo said. "We can see that in analyzing where kids were last year and where they are now."

When the Arizona Department of Education issues school grades again in the fall, Redondo does not expect to be a D school anymore, especially since the school was only five points away from earning a C last time.

Schools that receive a grade of D three years in a row are labeled failing and will be placed under the school improvement process by the state.

"There were significant jumps in areas," Redondo said. "Math is a challenge not just for us, but for everyone in our entire district."

To address that, Redondo has nine teachers with special math training. She is also working with a math consultant to refine their practice.

She said that she also feels the school has done a good job of identifying children and working strategically with each student on their area of need.

"It's a journey of improvement that is ongoing," Redondo added. "We're still reflecting and analyzing the why, what happened and what's happening now."

On StarNet: Find more education and TUSD news and resources at azstarnet.com/education

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