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Fix it plan for poor schools plods along:Skepticism over 'solutions teams'
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 17, 2003
Pat Kossan

Arizona's finest teachers, best principals and top administrators are being recruited into an army that will battle for better performance for students in 136 "underperforming" schools.

But the complex project of improving lagging test scores is drawing skepticism from the people it is designed to help.

State schools chief Tom Horne, who once thought it would take only days to launch a "solutions team" of education experts onto each campus, now admits it will take until February. Other educators say it will take until the end of the school year for some schools to get a "solutions team," too late to make a difference in spring testing.

Skepticism that the solutions team project will work is running deep among principals and teachers, but these same educators are impressed with the sheer energy and audacity of the plan to push students toward excellence.

Superintendent Robert Donofrio has headed the tiny inner-city Murphy Elementary District for more than two decades.

Calling in expert help is nothing new to him.

"It's nothing we haven't been doing for 10 years," said Donofrio, who has one school ranked as "underperforming" by the Arizona Department of Education. "We're not viewing this as earth-shattering. If they can see something to make that school better, fine. I welcome it."

Optimism welcome

But Donofrio is among many wary educators who can't help but welcome the optimism it takes to attempt to assemble and dispatch 136 solutions teams.

"You've got to view this as positive," said Donofrio, who gives the state's education administration credit for trying. "I see them working hard to do good things and turn the Department of Education into a service organization, instead of something always hammering you with demands."

Instead of hiring teams of national consultants, Arizona is working to build well-trained and home-grown teams of experts from its own trenches, including master teachers, district business officers, and successful principals. Horne said he has about 55 applications in hand and another 158 people attended information meetings the state Department of Education held throughout the state this month.

By growing its own solutions teams, education officials said, Arizona creates a ready pool of experts available to help schools year after year. Serving on the team also teaches the newly coined experts lessons to take back to their own schools, Horne said.

Late last week, Arizona's teachers union President Penny Kotterman attended a workshop with about 75 people the state is using to recruit and train new solutions team members.

Skepticism natural

"The natural tendency is for people to be skeptical," Kotterman said, adding that principals and teachers doubt the state can successfully organize or finance the teams.

Kotterman is convinced it can happen but will demand more time than some state officials realize. She doesn't expect all the teams to be in place until the end of the school year. "But the department is being very diligent over qualifications," Kotterman said.

The quality of the team members is what has some educators worried. Glendale Principal Val Just said she would welcome some veterans to help her train a host of new teachers at Landmark Middle School. The new teachers need to learn the tricks of managing a classroom and some of her veteran teachers could learn new teaching techniques supported by recent research.

But for now, teachers and principals are a little worried about competency of the solution team members and how much power they'll have to force change, she said. Just said she already has paid for national experts to visit the school, make reports and conduct training. She knows there's no such thing as instant successes.

"Teachers and principals are skeptical that someone, in a couple of visits a year, could have a good feel for what the building needs," Just said.

Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com.