US Education secretary impressed on Mesa visit
Associated Press
April 3, 2007

  Josh Kelley

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings had announced she was coming to Mesa Arts Academy as part of her trip to Arizona.

Spellings had read about the charter school's success in the face of tough demographics. Nearly 80 percent of students are impoverished and about half of students who first enroll in lower grades do not speak English.

"She wanted to come out and see what we were doing differently," longtime Principal Susan Douglas said. But first the secretary's staff and security came early to the school and got their first look at the physically unimpressive campus with classrooms in portable buildings.

As they stood in the school's small front office, they suggested that Spellings meet with reporters in the teachers' lounge.

"I looked at them and said, 'This is the teachers' lounge,' " Douglas said.
The room also serves as the staff lunchroom.

"They were a little surprised. We are what we are. We put the money into the kids, and so I won't apologize for not being fancy," Douglas said.

She does not have to apologize for her students' test scores: 100 percent of eighth-graders at the school last year passed the math and reading sections of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, the statewide exam all public schools must administer.

This is the 12th year for Mesa Arts Academy, which is sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the East Valley. The school has been featured in Time magazine. It has helped revitalize the surrounding neighborhood, where most of its students live. And it's viewed by many as a model of how a good charter school should work.

The school, which has 220 students in Grades K-8, also caught Spellings attention, prompting her visit Monday. Kids showed off their robots, assembled on construction paper, and read to Spellings, who spoke with Douglas as they walked across campus.

"We talked a lot about how important the assessment piece was, that we look at our data to determine if every child is making progress, and if not, we change instruction," Douglas said.

The secretary asked Douglas how the school overcomes the challenges of poverty and language barriers.

"I said we don't do that by lowering the bar," Douglas said. "We just push the kids up a little higher."

A vital component of the school's success is community partnerships.
Students from Mesa Community College regularly volunteer their services.
Teacher interns also work in classrooms. Students go to after-school programs at the Boys & Girls Club next door.

Mothers give of their time to help the school, which also teams with the Mesa school district to train teachers.

"The community partners are key to beating the odds because they don't cost you money," Douglas said. "You can't just drill and kill them (students).
What these students need is to believe that they can be successful."

And motivate she does. A school assembly at Mesa Arts Academy feels more like a pep rally.

"You just go in there, the energy, the morale, the school spirit, it's incredible," said Mike Hughes, a Mesa school board member who is also a longtime board member for Mesa Arts Academy.

"The secretary did say something really nice yesterday," Hughes said. "Show me a successful school, and I'll show you a successful principal, and that really is true. Sue has put her heart and soul in that program."

But she isn't getting a big head.

"You know, we're not done," Douglas said. "I'm scared to death of those AIMS tests next week."