Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Sat/31115SOLUTIONS.html

Few step up to help struggling schools
November 15, 2003
By Jennifer Sterba

The state's plan to help underperforming schools is getting off to a slow start as few educators have stepped forward to volunteer expertise and time.

So far, only 60 teachers have applied to serve on state solutions teams. Teams are expected to head out as soon as December, and state officials said the application process, which began about a month ago, will be ongoing.

The state needs at least 300 qualified educators if the state is to successfully create enough three-member teams to visit some 200 schools in danger of state intervention and-or losing federal money. Even at that minimal number, the teams would have to take on two schools each.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne wants each team to spend three days at a designated school - evaluating its improvement plan, analyzing what's working and what's not, and making recommendations for further improvement.

"It's a concern," Arizona Dep-uty Superintendent of Instruction Dale Parcel said of the low number of applicants. "That's what I wake up thinking about."

The consensus among educators is that there is no incentive for teachers to leave their own classrooms to help others.

"It's time out. When would I do it?" said Duane Wyatt, a fifth-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary School in the Sunnyside school district. "I'm very reluctant to do anything that takes me out of the classroom."

The state Department of Education identified 24 "underperforming" schools in Southern Arizona in October. Twelve of those schools are in Tucson Unified School District - the area's largest with about 62,000 students. Three underperforming schools were identified in the Sunnyside Unified School District, which serves about 15,000 students on Tucson's South Side.

"We have contacted the state universities and asked them for their input," Parcel said. "Nationally certified teachers have all been contacted. We are relying on groups who are heavily interested in education to encourage good people to apply."

State officials were training individuals Friday to train the solutions teams - which are supposed to go out to priority schools some time in December. Five orientation meetings were held around Arizona over the last two weeks to answer questions regarding pay and the required amount of time and training needed to serve on the solutions teams.

Parcel said educators will receive $225 per day and team leaders $350 per day - if they are taking unpaid time off from their school districts. If they are taking paid time off, the state will not pay them - in other words, no double-dipping. The state department will pay school districts for the cost of substitutes related to solutions vacancies.

Team members will be required to spend a day and a half in training and three days at an underperforming school. Team leaders are expected to spend an additional three days with an underperforming school - one day before the team visit to confer with the principal and two days after.

The state department will assign the teams and schools. Team leaders most likely will be chosen based on prior administrative experience, Parcel said. Team members must have demonstrated specific qualities, including experience as a master teacher, working with standards-based curriculum and assessment development.

Arizona modeled the idea on similar programs in North Carolina and Washington, Horne said. Hawaii and California also have similar programs in place, said Mary Jane Pearson, regional representative to the U.S. Department of Education.

Not all Arizonans have bought into the labeling trend, let alone the state's fix-it plan.

"There's a lot of hesitancy on the part of teachers. There's not a whole lot of buy-in yet to the whole labeling of schools," said Jan Truitt, principal at Marana High School.

Truitt said while she knows several administrators who are preparing applications, she doesn't know of anyone who's applied from her school.

Some teachers are saying they've heard nothing of the state's solutions teams at school.

Wyatt said he hasn't seen or heard anything from the Sunnyside administration about applying for the teams. The state didn't direct districts to pass along information on the solutions teams, said Shelly Duran, project coordinator for TUSD grants.

Parcel was practically begging for applicants at an orientation meeting for interested educators last week at Sunnyside's Desert View High School.

"I've got principals who say, 'I've got some crackerjack teachers I could send you, but I don't want them out of my building,' " he said.

Parcel's response: "Please."

Most of the interest expressed so far has come from the private sector, he said.

Reading specialist Leo Francis said she sees serving the state's solutions teams as a networking opportunity. Francis, who sent in her application last week, is starting her own private consulting company to offer her experience in overcoming literacy obstacles to struggling students.

Francis said she thinks the solutions teams are a good idea and will give her and other teachers a valuable glimpse into what other schools are doing.

The lack of pay for salaried district employees isn't a concern for Francis, who said low teacher pay is a nationwide obstacle to improving education.

"The best and the brightest are not encouraged to go into teaching as a career because they can't make the kind of living for themselves and their families they could make if they went into business," she said. But "I look at it as my way of giving back to the community. "

* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or at jsterba@azstarnet.com