Four Tucson-area schools received their third successive D grades and are in danger of being labeled failing.
The grades are issued by the Arizona Department of Education to measure how well schools are performing year to year. Three successive D's qualify a school for an F. This is the first year that schools are at risk of being labeled failing since the letter grades were first issued in 2011.
However, in releasing the 2012-13 data Thursday, the Arizona Department of Education did not label any schools as failing, saying some are appealing their F designations, so no final decision will be made until the appeals are complete.
But a review of the school letter grades for this year and the two previous years by the Arizona Daily Star identified four schools earning D's three years in a row in Tucson's largest school districts - TUSD and Sunnyside. They are:
• Catalina Magnet High School in the Tucson Unified School District.
• Los Ranchitos Elementary School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.
• Apollo Middle School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.
• Sierra Middle School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.
If, in the end, the schools are given grades of F, the Arizona Department of Education will monitor them for three years and the schools have to participate in an improvement program.
Three other TUSD schools fell into the triple-D category - Carson and Hohokam middle schools and Howenstine High School - but they are no longer in danger as the Governing Board voted in December to close them.
Catalina was only two points shy of earning a C despite serving what some may consider to be a challenging population. Seventy-eight percent of Catalina students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the midtown school serves a high population of refugee students. But for TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, the demographics shouldn't be used as an excuse.
"Our job is to meet students where they are and get them to where they need to be - to a level of success," Sanchez said.
Catalina Principal Rex Scott acknowledged there is still work to be done, but he said the school is "clearly moving in the right direction," noting that it was 12 points away from a C last year.
The focus now has to be on providing support and understanding what the learning gaps are, Sanchez said.
"Catalina is a campus where we'll put a tremendous amount of emphasis, but it won't be short-term or shortsighted; it has to be sustainable," he said. "This is not a matter of can we do it, but how will we do it."
The three Sunnyside schools will undergo a major improvement model and redesign, which will include instructional coaching for teachers, more professional development and other measures, said Sunnyside Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo.
Isquierdo said he disagrees with the idea of penalizing a school that receives a D three years in a row, because some schools can show improvement in spite of the letter grades.
The state-issued report cards are not all bad. In Tucson and across Arizona, there are more A and B traditional district schools than there were last year, and fewer C and D schools.
"The majority of Arizona schools are doing quite well," said Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal, noting that 63 percent of schools across the state received A or B labels. "Arizona's schools are improving. In fact, we found over 300 schools improved a letter grade over last year."
TUSD made significant strides, with twice as many A and B schools as it had when grades were first issued in 2011. The district has also reduced its D schools by 60 percent, going from 28 schools in 2011 to 11 in 2013.
The district had two elementary schools - Carrillo Magnet and Kellond - that improved from a C in 2011 to a B in 2012 to earning the top grade of A this year. Three others - Davis Magnet, Hudlow and Warren - went from D's to C's to B's.
TUSD's largest high school, Tucson Magnet, is now a B school after being rated C for the last two years.
One of the most notable surprises was the success of Ochoa Community Magnet School, a campus that for the last two years received D ratings but is now a B school.
In each case, Sanchez said, the improvements are due to a focus on good instructional practices implemented under former Superintendent John Pedicone.
Other efforts include using data to inform teaching and implementing an assessment system that allows teachers to gauge how students are performing throughout the year and intervening as necessary.
"When you add all of these efforts together, these are the practices we need to capture, build on and continue," Sanchez said. "I'm extremely proud of the work that the teachers, administration and students have put in to move this district forward."
But this is only the beginning, Sanchez said.
"When you build a system and you begin to see greater levels of progress, there is still a need to look at the practices that are struggling," Sanchez said.
Tucson's second-largest district, Sunnyside, lost the one A school grade it had in 2012 - Gallego Basic Elementary - and added an additional D school to the list. The district did, however, increase the number of B-rated schools to seven and lowered the number of C schools.
Isquierdo said that while he doesn't believe the grades completely reflect Sunnyside's improvements, the district will continue to work to raise the academic standing of its schools.
Elsewhere in Tucson, the Catalina Foothills School District, which last year earned A's at all seven of its campuses, had one school that slipped down to a B. The Vail School District picked up the straight-A honor this year for its 12 campuses.
Vail, which has been hailed as one of the top school districts in the state, attributes its success to "a relentless, districtwide focus on proven instructional practices," and outstanding staff, strong community support, and solid leadership at the school, district and board levels.
The Sahuarita Unified School District improved substantially, with two of its schools receiving A grades for the first time since the state Department of Education implemented letter grades.
One of the A schools, Copper View Elementary School, opened last year. Anza Trail School also received an A.
"It's a validation of the instructional leadership that has taken place in those buildings," said Sahuarita Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela.
Two of the district's B schools, Sahuarita Middle School and Walden Grove High School, improved from last year, when the schools received C grades.
Sopori Elementary School, in Amado, received a D.
Valenzuela said there were a few factors that likely contributed to Sopori's grade, including a lot of new teachers who arrived at the school last year.
"It's not an excuse, but a consideration we can be mindful of," he said. "We will use the data to look at strengths and weaknesses, and make meaningful decisions."
In the Amphitheater Public Schools district, there were seven A schools, seven B schools and four C schools.
Amphitheater High School was the only school to earn a D.
The high school saw its 10th-grade AIMS math scores drop last year, which contributed to the lower grade, said Amphitheater High School Principal Jon Lansa.
However, the school has undergone several staffing and program changes, which should result in substantial improvement within the coming years, Lansa said.
Holaway Elementary School showed the biggest improvement, jumping from a D to a B in one year.
Holaway officials improved the academic standing through a combination of assessment tests, interventions for struggling students and individualized instruction for those students, said district spokeswoman Mindy Blake.
School grades are based on the weighting of student performance on the high-stakes 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.
On StarNet: Search letter grades of schools and districts at azstarnet.com/databases
DISTRICTS REPORT CARD
How Pima County districts fared with grades for their schools
Amphitheater: B overall
• A: 7 B: 7 C: 4 D: 1
• Not rated: 2
Catalina Foothills: A overall
• A: 6 B: 1 C: 0 D: 0
Flowing Wells: B overall
• A: 1 B: 5 C: 2 D: 0
• Not rated: 1
Marana: B overall
• A: 6 B: 8 C: 2 D: 0
Sahuarita: B overall
• A: 2 B: 3 C: 1 D: 1
Tanque Verde: A overall
• A: 3 B: 1 C: 0 D: 0
Sunnyside: C overall
• A: 0 B: 7 C: 6 D: 7
• Not rated: 1
TUSD: C overall
• A: 12 B: 30 C: 38 D: 11
• Not rated: 1
Vail: A overall
• A: 12 B: 0 C: 0 D: 0
• Not rated: 1
Across the state
• A: Of the 334 schools earning this label statewide, 49 are in Pima County.
• B: Of the 485 schools earning this label statewide, 65 are in Pima County.
• C: Of the 369 schools earning this label statewide, 54 are in Pima County.
• D: Of the 115 schools earning this label statewide, 24 are in Pima County.
Note: Grades are for traditional, district schools only. Small, alternative and K-2 schools are not included.
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea