Tucson-area school districts are getting ready for the state's more rigorous new "Common Core" education standards - but preparation is proving to be an individualized rather than standardized process.
When Common Core takes full effect next year, it is expected to better prepare children for college or the work force by teaching them to think critically and analytically while improving their problem-solving skills.
Training teachers and upgrading technology is expensive, but most district officials say they welcome the new standards and will be ready to implement them on schedule.
Kindergarten through second-grade teachers are already teaching to the standards. Full implementation comes in the fall, with the 2013-14 school year.
Business leaders applaud the changes, which they say will better prepare Arizona kids for college and qualify them for good jobs in the state that now sometimes go unfilled.
"There are jobs that are open if we can get students through the pipeline with a specific set of skills," said Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "We hear too many stories from our community colleges and universities that kids graduating from high school aren't ready for college."
The new standards for math and language, created by teams of teachers, professors, parents and education experts from around the country, were adopted by the state board of education in 2010.
In language arts, students will be required to read more complex literature, including more fiction and nonfiction at earlier grades, and analyze what they have read through research and persuasive writing.
For math, students will not only have to know how to get an answer to a problem, but also show a deeper understanding of math concepts such as addition, subtraction and multiplication, and how to apply that knowledge.
Business leaders say many jobs go unfilled because high school graduates lack the skills to succeed in college or the workplace.
Some of those leaders addressed state lawmakers during a special hearing last week, expressing support for the standards and asking lawmakers to support funding for Common Core.
After several years of state education funding cuts, squeezing extra money out of school budgets for teacher training and computer upgrades has been a big issue, one the Legislature is expected to consider in the coming session.
AIMS to be phased out
Starting in 2015, students will be evaluated using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The AIMS graduation test will be phased out by 2017.
The PARCC is not only more difficult, but it is to be taken online, which means some districts will have to figure out how to pay for additional computers and other technological upgrades.
The results will evaluate both schools and teachers.
"There's some anxiety. … There's some curiosity. And there are those teachers who are really excited," said Maria Menconi, Tucson Unified School District deputy superintendent.
Most school districts and charter schools have had to rely on federal money and grants, or reallocate money from their budgets to pay for teacher training, instructional books and other materials.
The Tucson Unified School District has spent about $500,000 so far for workshops to train teachers, with about 95 percent of the money coming from federal funds allocated to assist economically disadvantaged districts, Menconi said.
All of the district's kindergarten through third-grade teachers, along with district principals, have been trained.
Other grade levels have received introductory training, she said.
The district's bigger concern is whether it has enough computers to administer the PARCC test.
"If it's okay to take kids to labs, then we're probably fine," she said. "But that's not an effective way to do this."
"We have computer labs, but if you think about it from a time perspective, it would tie up our labs for weeks," she said.
Most of the students in the Sunnyside Unified School District, Tucson's second largest district, have individual access to computers through the district's One-to-One computer program, said Pam Betten, director of middle schools and the One-to-One program.
The district bought the computers with an $88 million bond approved by voters in 2011, she said. Students already take district assessment tests online, Betten said.
The district expects to pay about $350,000 for technology upgrades such as increasing bandwidth, buying additional hardware and improving labs for third and eleventh graders, who are not part of the One-to-One program, she said.
Sunnyside has spent $55,000 so far to train teachers and develop curriculums that fit the new standards.
The district is mostly concerned with the two-year period where teachers must use Common Core but remain accountable to the old AIMS standards.
"They cannot serve both masters," she said. "That's a very difficult challenge for us now."
Training in smaller districts such as Vail and Sahuarita has been a bit more grassroots, relying on principals and head teachers in the schools to train the rest of the staff.
Both districts are concerned as they evaluate their readiness for the new assessment test, and the cost of being ready.
"It's a problem and we're really searching for a solution," said Debbie Hedgepeth, assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development for the Vail School District.
Vail has spent $120,000 on network upgrades. It still needs $1 million to upgrade the technological infrastructure and another $1 million for instructional materials for teachers.
Lower grades move on
Despite the challenges, teachers in lower grades have already moved forward with the standards.
At TUSD's Wheeler Elementary School, Danna Celaya's language arts lesson illustrated different principles of the Common Core.
Her first-graders had read a book about collecting earlier in the week and now it was time to discuss what they had read.
But instead of listening to the teacher talk and initiate a discussion, each student turned to the classmate closest to them and discussed what items they would collect or had already collected.
Afterward, each student stood before the class and shared their partner's answer. Some students collected toys, while others collected charms and other items.
The students later read a poem about keepsakes.
The purpose of the lesson was not collecting, but fostering a deeper level of questioning and active participation during class, Celaya said.
Celaya also reviewed reading strategies such as using pictures to identify the meaning of words, pointing at words while reading, and re-reading to get a deeper understanding.
"We always try to make learning for the kids meaningful and engaging," she said.
For educators and other supporters of the standards, the newfound depth in learning is one of most significant and beneficial changes that will take place in the classroom.
"Common Core makes you say to kids 'Why do you think this is the right answer?' " Menconi said. "It's the way we should teach."
The success of the new standards will depend on the teachers and administrators who carry out the standards, said Betten, the Sunnyside administrator.
"There's no magic to it," she said. "It will take really focused work."
"There are jobs that are open if we can get students through the pipeline with a specific set of skills. We hear too many stories from our community colleges and universities that kids graduating from high school aren't ready for college."
Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Contact reporter Jamar Younger at email@example.com or 573-4115. On Twitter: @JamarYounger