Teacher's high expectations encourage achievement
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 6, 2004

Doug Carroll
It is easier to keep up than to catch up, Mary Cordova often tells her students and their parents.

And she speaks from personal experience.

Cordova, a first-grade teacher at Griffith Elementary School in the Balsz School District in Phoenix, got sidetracked after graduating from high school in St. Louis and didn't go directly to college. Neither of her parents had finished high school, and there was no sense of urgency to go beyond.

When she did, however, there was no stopping her.

"I decided I would get my degree, no matter what it took," Cordova said.

While earning a bachelor's degree in business at Arizona State University, she worked as a paraprofessional in the Osborn School District and ultimately decided to go for a master's degree in education.

Now in her 17th year, she has been teaching ever since.

"I loved working with the students who were learning English," Cordova says of her work in Osborn. Her Spanish had been honed by living in South America for three years.

She has been named one of 12 exemplary teachers in the 2005 Rodel Teacher Initiative, a program that rewards teachers who work in the Valley's poorest schools.

Rodel selected teachers whose classes scored well on achievement tests for three consecutive years. They also were recommended by their principals. Cordova's award is being paid by Salt River Project, a partner with Rodel in the teacher initiative.

The importance of parental involvement in a child's education is an aspect she hammers constantly.

"Attendance is paramount," Cordova said she tells parents. "If (a student misses) even a week for a family trip, it really can take a toll. In the first grade, you're doing reading and math, the things that are the building blocks."

Cordova says many parents sincerely want to help their children but are unsure how.

"Even if it's just taking them to the library, that helps," she said. "If (children) can read in Spanish, then they'll read in English. And taking the time to converse with them develops language skills."

On motivating students: Cordova has a motto of "we must, we can, we will." She emphasizes individual and team successes.

How parents can help: "Explain what you expect. Check for homework and establish a studying regimen."

Advice for fellow teachers: "Be organized and prioritize. Get the class up and moving when needed."

On raising the bar for her students: "I tell them what I expect."

Why she loves teaching: "It's a loving, caring community with a goal and a purpose."

What her principal said: "Mary has been such an asset in reaching out to families," Griffith Principal Mary Ruddy said. "She's very consistent with kids. She sets the expectations high but is willing to put in the extra time to help them get there."

Reach the reporter at doug.carroll@arizonarepublic.com.