Nearly 1,100 students are attending failing schools southwest of Tucson in the remote community of Sells, and have been for the last three years.

Every year, however, the letter grade has come as a surprise to district officials who say the work being done in the Baboquivari Unified School District could come straight out of a best practices playbook.

The efforts include numerous interventions for struggling students, data-driven decision making, accountability for both teachers and students, the latest in technology, a focus on early childhood education, increased focus on student attendance, an extended school year, and community buy-in.

There is also the $51,000 starting salary being offered to teachers — an effort to recruit and retain the best.

While the district’s many initiatives have resulted in significant academic growth, it has been unable to get students to meet Arizona standards that have been considered to be too low by most.

Nonetheless, officials do not feel that they are doing students a disservice.

“We are not sitting back,” said Baboquivari Superintendent Edna Morris. “We are doing the things we need to do and we are moving the school district forward in many ways — engaging the community, increasing support to teachers, and putting student achievement first.”

Morris explains that years of low expectations have left students without strong educational foundations — a gap that has been challenging to close as evidenced by standardized test scores.

The district is confident, however, that it is only a matter of time before its elementary, middle and high schools can redeem themselves in the eyes of state education officials.

Geography doesn’t help

The remote town of Sells faces a lot of challenges, with few amenities and even fewer resources.

“It is the nature of where we live — our families not having access to books, to media, to television,” Morris said. “We still have homes without electricity or water.”

Added Baboquivari Governing Board member Sara Mae Williams: “We’ve always said it is one of the most important things, but did we really know how important education was to our community? No one ever challenged us to say let’s make that the best of the best.”

Add to that the rural location and the lack of exposure to what schools should look like and what it means to really be challenged, Williams said.

“The state never pushed it either, because why would you let that go on for so long?” Williams said.

It wasn’t until five years ago that former superintendent Alberto Siqueiros and the governing board decided to work to reverse what had long been a trend of underachievement.

The district started by cleaning house — getting rid of up to half of the staff identified as being ineffective.

When it came to replacing teachers, there was more to recruiting than advertising the highest starting salary in the state. District officials did not just want someone willing to work in a remote location, they would have to be effective, too.

The hiring process was retooled, from the standard interview to an approach that involved teaching in front of students while being evaluated by a team of educators and providing data that proves they are able to grow student achievement, Morris said.

The higher pay increased the number of applicants for the district to chose from, and the revised hiring practice ensured well-thought out decisions were being made.

Teacher turnover went from 80 percent in some schools down to 4 percent district-wide this year.

There has also been an emphasis on strong school leadership, which works daily to monitor teacher effectiveness and student learning.

The district opened up a free preschool to prepare younger children, who more often than not were coming into kindergarten unprepared.

Armed with highly qualified, highly effective educators, Williams and Morris say the improvements at the lower grade levels are astounding — the highest achievement the community has seen.

It is the upper grades where challenges still exist, where students who are now in middle school and high school were saddled with teachers who came to Baboquivari as a last resort.

“It takes time to bring in highly qualified teachers, and starting from ground zero,” Morris said. “Unfortunately for our upper grades, our children didn’t have the benefit of getting that education because they might not have had a highly effective teacher.”

There have been strides made, however with the graduation rate going from 48 percent in 2010 to 79 percent in 2014. The dropout rate has also plummeted from 16 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2014.

In addition to closing the achievement gap, the district also struggles with the challenges students face in their home lives.

“We can control what we do between the hours of 8 and 3,” Morris said. “We can’t control what happens in the evening.”

Many in the community struggle with alcoholism and drug problems, Morris said.

It is because of that, Williams said, that the district must improve its efforts to offer wraparound services.

“It’s not just academics — we’re offering that now,” she said. “Our biggest challenge is providing the wraparound services so that they have that net there that is not going to let them slip through the cracks.”

Grades don’t tell the story

State-issue letter grades, however, do not take into account a student’s personal struggles.

Schools are evaluated both on how many of its students are passing AIMS each year and how much its students academically grow each year. Other factors such as dropout rate, graduation rate and English language learner reclassification rate are taken into consideration, when applicable.

While the Baboquivari School District fares well in the growth category, the high-stakes test scores, particularly in math, is where the challenge lies.

According to Morris, the district has been implementing rigorous Common Core standards for the last four years and she believes the curriculum in place is strong. Given that Common Core is said to be a step up from the past state standards, most would think that students would excel on the AIMS assessment.

What Morris found was that students were not being prepared to test, with assessments only being administered quarterly in the past.

Today teachers are assessing their students weekly, checking for understanding and adjusting instruction as needed.

To earn a C, schools need at least 100 points — a mark that the elementary school missed one year by three points. The middle school gained 16 points, going from 72 to 88. The high school earned 86 points — up from 66 the year before.

“Those points are hard to achieve,” Morris said. “Clearly we know we are F schools, but if people were to come and look into our classrooms, they would see the growth we have made.”

Constant changes in scoring over the years, also haven’t helped, Williams said. And with a new test and accountability system on the horizon, the way the state defines success is up in the air.

Despite the unknown, Morris believes that with consistency, the district’s teachers will deliver a strong education and the students will eat it up. Though change is sometimes a slow process, she expects to see improvement in the spring.

“It was mediocre and failing and we don’t want it to be that way anymore and we’re tired of hearing we are failing schools,” Morris said. “It’s a slap in our face every single time. It hurts us to no end. So we wrap ourselves up in it and say, that is the label we got for three years in a row. Now we have to get back in and say what are we going to do better?”

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