Refocusing the schools
Wright seeks improvement at Roosevelt
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 20, 2004 12:00 AM
Betty Reid

Grace Wright looks to be unaware of the cloud that lingers over the Roosevelt Elementary School District.

At a social function in November honoring an instructor, the interim Roosevelt superintendent met the husband of a former Roosevelt student.

"He asked me, 'Tell me, is it really as bad as we read about it in the newspaper?' " Wright said. "I told him, no, children are still safe, children are still learning, people are still trying to work to educate children. It just hit me, with the negative press that's out there."

The social worker turned probation officer turned educator was placed in charge of the district in late October after the School Board abruptly fired Frederick Warren. She wants to move the district in a new direction.

She wants the public and the community to pay more attention to Roosevelt's teaching programs and a new student-staffed newspaper that is scheduled to publish soon.

"What I want, if anything else, is to refocus this institution," Wright said. "And this product, this service, is education. It's not politics. It's about creating an environment for children to learn and for parents to be comfortable with what their children are doing during the day, and we are providing positive experiences for them that will help them create a viable and productive future life."

Some residents of the Roosevelt district call Wright smart, charming, sassy and a team player.

Those are nice assets for a leader, but Wright, an Avondale resident, has a tall order, especially in a district where 80 percent of the 11,500 students are Hispanic and many enter school not speaking English.

With school accountability policies such as No Child Left Behind and Arizona Learns taxing public schools, educators face stiff challenges in helping kids achieve.

The Arizona Department of Education has issued achievement labels for each school, ranging from excelling to underperforming, the past two years. If schools are given underperforming labels three consecutive times under Arizona Learns, they could drop under department control. Four Roosevelt campuses - Conchos, Brooks Academy, Bush and Greenfield - face state takeover if they don't improve.

Wright, who would not reveal her age, said she is up to the challenge. She's familiar with the district, having led M.O. Bush Elementary as principal from 1994 to 2001, and she was a Roosevelt assistant superintendent from 2001 until October, when she was made superintendent.

With the help of No Child Left Behind school-reform funds, the district hired a consultant to help craft a plan to erase the underperforming labels. The district is using software programs like GrowNet or Exceptional Learning Outward Bound to bolster student achievement.

Wright points out that the district had nine schools labeled as underperforming in 2002. This year, two schools rid themselves of the labels.

"We are going at every different angle that we can to try to bring about improvement," Wright said.

Wright has outlined her mission and goals.

"We want to create a first-class district of effective schools that ensures high-quality engagement of students through meaningful life experiences," Wright said. "We will accomplish this by connecting parents, staff, students and community to the common goal of academic excellence and honest and open communication."

She said she envisions intensive tutorial programs that meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. She also wants to reinvent Roosevelt's Super Pac, spearheaded by the superintendent and designed to improve communication between the district and parents.

Pearlia B. Smith, a librarian at Bush School, worked with Wright a decade ago. She described her as a "responsible" educator who leads by example. She credits the interim superintendent with networking computers at Bush.

Tim O'Malley, Roosevelt's consultant project manager, met Wright in the mid-1990s when Roosevelt and other urban schools pushed for equal funding for public schools.

"She is a consensus builder," O'Malley said. "I think she'll do a great job. Grace has the ability to acknowledge to others that she doesn't know everything. She asks questions. That is a very good personality trait for leadership."

Critics believe Wright's biggest obstacle to carrying out her vision is one of easing decades of tension between Hispanics and African-Americans in the district.

Although some Latinos pushed for a Hispanic leader, Wright, who does not speak Spanish, has not faced much criticism yet.