Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/eastvalleyopinions/articles/1008sepopquiz1008.html

District rebuilds culture
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 8, 2003
Cindy Hernandez

John M. Baracy joined the Tempe Elementary School District as superintendent five years ago - a time when the district faced poor financial health, declining enrollment figures and the possibility of closing some schools.

Today, the district enjoys financial stability with a $74.1 million budget for the 2003-04 academic year - a 6.7 percent increase from the previous year. The student population has grown to almost 14,000, the highest enrollment in the history of the school district. The district's more than 2,000 employees received a 1.5 percent boost to their salaries, and all student programs were maintained this year. And in May, voters passed a 5 percent K-3 budget override, allowing $2.45 million annually for five years to go to lowering classroom sizes.

Pop Quiz caught up with Baracy to talk about the district's transformation and the diverse children who attend the district's schools, while getting a personal look at the man who leads the Tempe Elementary School District.

On the district's Web site, you say that Arizona State University "provides an exceptional backdrop of professional and educational enhancement" to the district community. Can you elaborate on that?

We're very fortunate to have Arizona State University in our community. And I believe that historically from the inception of Arizona State University that education has been an integral, important part of our community values. And those values have enabled our school district, through the exceptional support of our governing board, to undertake a significant redesign of our school district to transform an urban school district into a leader in student achievement.

Through this support, our school district and I have been part of an exciting team that has redesigned a school district and put a focus on placing children in the center of everything that we do and support. Through these efforts, we have achieved something that is very unique for urban school districts. We have improved student achievement, we've created financial stability, we've increased teachers' salaries, we've increased student enrollment. And we have saved all educational programs for children in a time where the state has been under severe financial strains and has been faced with one of its most significant financial crises in the history of our state.

What are the needs of Tempe's elementary schoolchildren and how have they changed in the past 10 years?

We have become a very diverse community in the last decade. Seventy-three languages are spoken in our school district. We are a very ethnically diverse district. Forty-three percent of our students are Hispanic, 10 percent are African-American, 10 percent are Native American, 4 percent are Asian, and the balance are Anglos. Approximately 30 percent of our student's today are English language learners. Forty-nine percent qualify for free and reduced lunches. Our district has been transformed over the past decade from a suburban school district to a beautiful, diverse urban school district, which we celebrate and are proud of and we believe is what America is all about.

Does the fact that the city is landlocked play a role in the district's diversity?

The affect that landlocked situation has on our school district is that enrollment had been declining over the past decade. When I came here five years ago, it was projected to continue to decline for another five. We were talking about closing schools because we were a landlocked, mature community. And we had financial instability because under the current state aid formula, districts have financial stability when they grow. The formula for funding education rewards school districts on growth, not on decline or flat enrollment numbers.

In order for us to survive and thrive and provide quality programs for the students that live in Tempe, we had to tell our story in order to bring in new students to our school district, and we did that through our marketing efforts.

We have increased our out-of-district enrollment from approximately 600 when I came here almost five years ago to 1,500 students from out of our school district. Students come to us from as far away as Arizona City. And those students coming to us generates about $2.7 million in new revenue, which has enabled us to have financial stability It has enabled us to keep quality programs and pay teachers an increase in their salaries and save quality programs for children in Tempe.

More than 83,000 people who live in another part of the Valley, even in the West Valley, commute to Tempe each day. Do you find a great number of those people enrolling their children in Tempe schools so that their children are closer to them during the day?

Yes, we do. And we welcome them. And we would invite and open our doors to more if they should select our district and the outstanding programs we offer. That is a market that we would encourage commuters to take advantage of. It is a great match with their needs and our needs and our programs. And we would hope that they would give us a second look and contact a school that is close to their work site.

Pop Quiz puts topical questions to people in the news. Readers are invited to offer names of possible subjects for this feature and questions they should be asked. Write Opinions, The Arizona Republic, 106 E. Baseline Road, Mesa, AZ 85210, contact us at se.letters@arizonarepublic.com or fax us at (602) 444-7985.