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Colleen Niccum: Community support is key to TUSD success

Colleen Niccum: Community support is key to TUSD success

Among the many insights offered during a strategic planning session held a week ago by Tucson Unified School District leaders, a common message emerged: It takes a community to create successful schools.

“This job is too big for one person,” said Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who is leading the creation of a new five-year plan for the district. “But it’s not too big for this community.” The session, he said, offered an opportunity to listen to what the community wants for its children and for the future of Tucson.

I was among a diverse group of 200 participants that included parents, teachers, students, school administrators, Governing Board members, union leaders, elected officials and representatives from the business, nonprofit, higher-education and faith-based communities. Together, we spent nearly eight hours providing input to help build a road map for TUSD, the first such effort in this community’s recent history.

Because TUSD is the largest district in Tucson and the oldest district in the state, its success has implications for this entire region. The 50,000 students attending TUSD schools represent our future workforce and community leaders, and all of us should be concerned that they not only graduate but are prepared for college and careers.

While my table mates during the discussion represented a wide range of viewpoints, we agreed more often than not. We want every public school to be a good school; we want high expectations for all students; and we want equal educational opportunities regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic background or abilities. We also want to recruit and retain the very best teachers for every classroom.

We were enthusiastic about ideas to bring dropouts back to the district and support them so they graduate. We also want to accelerate our painfully slow progress toward closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

We contemplated ways to inspire a population comprising many people 55 or older without school-age children to support the education of Tucson’s youth, the other biggest sector of our population. The communities that succeed at this task are rewarded with higher job growth, increased property values and greater economic prosperity.

We also want to embrace TUSD’s diversity as a strength that prepares students to compete in a global economy, and not as an excuse for poor performance and low expectations.

As a business leader, I have participated in many strategic planning efforts. Their success requires that we agree on the key goals and specific actions, and then stay the course to see them successfully implemented.

The naysayers predict TUSD’s strategic plan will join a growing stack of similar efforts gathering dust on shelves across town. But I believe it will succeed if the community commits its support to TUSD and does not retreat from good plans and good intentions when difficult issues surface. We should build on the positive things that are happening in the district and the progress that has been achieved in recent years. In so doing, we can take action to reach the key goals of the strategic plan that will result in improved educational outcomes for students.

If you’ve been on the sidelines, it’s time to get involved. Go to the TUSD website at to view the strategic planning presentations and provide input. It takes the entire community to ensure that TUSD succeeds, and the future of our entire community depends on it.

Colleen Niccum, vice president of education policy for the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, recently retired after 30 years with Raytheon Co. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Contact her at

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