By John Pedicone
Special to the Arizona Daily Star
Editor's note: The following is the full "State of the District" statement that Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone announced Thursday at a press conference. An excerpted version, edited for length, was published in today's Star print edition.
After five and half months on the job, I feel it is important to provide the community with a brief summary of my perceptions about the district, my beliefs about what needs to be accomplished, a summary of what has been accomplished to date and a vision for achieving the goal of making Tucson Unified School District a place that focuses on student achievement and service to this community.
TUSD is a district of approximately 53,000 students. It represents the second largest district in the state of Arizona and I can say without hesitation that it has some exceptionally strong programs that any school district in the nation would be proud to have.
It is also true there are a significant number of highly effective and competent people who work at all levels providing services to children and the community. As I have mentioned over the past several months, this district does not suffer from an absence of talent. Having said that, it is also true that there does not exist a unifying sense of organizational values or beliefs, which must be present for any organization to be successful.
It is also true that the system within the district is in need of refinement. Over time, protocols have loosened and procedures that are necessary for high levels of efficiency and effectiveness are not in place. For as long as most people can remember, the district has had a reputation for mismanagement, real or perceived, and has not seemed to focus on student achievement.
The overall perception of the district is that it is inefficient, top heavy in terms of administrative overhead, ineffective in terms of the educational services it provides to children and unresponsive to parents and community members.
The truth is that, if you ask the typical parent in any TUSD school what they think of their child's school, they will say that it is a good school where they want their child to go. In most cases, there is a fierce sense of loyalty to the neighborhood school as evidenced by the outcry that rises when potential school closures are identified.
Most people feel their child's teacher is effective and, in most cases, the principal of the school is viewed as effective. From the inside, while there are issues that arise, as in any school organization, the majority of people are satisfied with the education their children receive and in some cases are passionately protective of the same.
The truth is that, while there are excellent programs throughout the district, the overall achievement at the elementary level is fair and, as a student progresses through the system to middle and high school, it begins to decrease.
A number of factors contribute to the achievement results including a high percentage of students in poverty, English Language Learners and high mobility among students and families. The level of student mobility caused by a number of factors, including school choice, creates serious issues with accountability and the consistency necessary to ensure that students are monitored and that their programs are adjusted for maximum effectiveness.
When students enter the middle schools there is a serious decline in achievement in reading, writing and math that sets the stage for performance in high school. Approximately 700 students leave the district or drop out between their freshman and sophomore years, the same number leave or drop out between their sophomore and junior year and a slightly smaller number leave before their senior year. Clearly, this is an area of strong concern and one that must be addressed.
Since January, several actions have been taken and initiatives implemented that will begin the process of district and school improvement. The following are some examples:
1. The Governing Board approved the turnaround model for Rincon and Palo Verde High Schools, which were identified as Persistently Lowest Achieving under the State and Federal guidelines. For the 2011-2012 school year, these high schools are under new leadership and new faculty and staff members have been hired who are committed to school reform. It is our expectation that what we learn in terms of improvement strategies will inform our efforts across the district.
2. The Governing Board approved full-day kindergarten for all elementary schools in the district. This promises to be highly beneficial for all TUSD students but especially important for children who need additional assistance due to demographic or social conditions.
3. We are deeply into the reconstruction of our systems to better address the organizational flow and function. While much of this work will not be observable at first, the results of this effort will be an integral part of every aspect of institutional operations.
4. We have re-established the department of curriculum and instruction, which also will oversee staff development across the district. These functions were eliminated under the previous administration.
5. We are making sure that every school will have an office manager to receive parents and community members in an effort to improve customer service. This has been a problem in the past due to site councils making the hard decisions resulting in the loss of these positions at several elementary schools.
6. We have developed a TUSD Instructional Model, which will be taught to every teacher and site administrator in the district. This will provide a necessary level of instructional training that will add consistency across the district and benefit all teachers, leading to increased student achievement.
7. We are building a spirit of caring and concern from within the organization that will define the way we must treat each other and the way leadership must behave. While we have to make difficult decisions in order improve and change, if we can convince people that we are stronger together than we can ever be individually, a collaborative culture will develop.
While our central focus must be student achievement and school accountability, we have been confronted with some serious issues that require our attention and pull us away from that focus. The most difficult among them has been the Ethnic Studies Debate.
The Mexican American Studies Program has come under fire from the State Superintendent of Public Instruction based on the passage of HB2281 designed to specifically address the courses being taught in government and history.
We are waiting for a decision by State Superintendent John Huppenthal on whether he has determined that we are in compliance with the law.
From the start, my position has been in support of the principles that serve as the foundation for this program, including the strong relationships that instructors have with students and the importance of providing accurate and relevant historical information that will encourage students to understand their heritage and the contributions that have been made by members of various ethnic groups.
I am sure that most of you know that student and adult protests resulted in the stoppage of a Governing Board meeting and that threats made against our students and the audience at the next board meeting resulted in the Tucson Police Department having to make several arrests. A third meeting was disrupted during the call to the audience.
As a result of the high levels of emotion that had developed and the need to bring the level of tension down for the sake of the district and our students, I wrote letters to the Mexican American Studies Community Advisory Board and the student group who organized the protests indicating that I was interested in working with them to organize a forum to address the issues surrounding the program, not pressing charges against the students as an indication of the administration's determination to open dialogue, and requesting we establish such a dialogue as soon as possible.
A number of community leaders attempted to organize a meeting to design a Community Forum that would lead to increased understanding. Unfortunately, the individuals invited from the Mexican-American community did not respond and the student group was unwilling to meet without certain conditions being met. To date, no meeting has been held.
At this point, the district is awaiting the decision from the State Superintendent regarding our compliance with the law, after which the Governing Board will determine next steps.
It is clear we must focus on the well-being of all of our students and the expectations that this community should have for this district and the manner in which we serve you.
I am committed to doing exactly that. Next year, in addition to full-day kindergarten, we will be developing pre-kindergarten programs that will attempt to better prepare students for school and assist parents in preparing them for a successful educational experience.
Every effort we put into early childhood education is another piece of our drop-out prevention program. The sooner we intervene with students, the greater the likelihood of their academic and workplace success. Further, another area of great concern is the middle school level.
We are losing our students during the transitions from early elementary to the intermediate and middle levels. While high numbers of 9th-grade students across the district fail one class or more, that failure begins long before they enter high school.
We will be focusing on intervention programs for students from 6th through 8th grades. We must ensure that every student is prepared for the high school experience, will graduate in four years or less, and will have as many options as possible after they graduate.
This is our commitment to our students, families and to this community. We are encouraged and hopeful that together we can and will make Tucson Unified a district of which all of us can be proud.
Email TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone through Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org