2 'failing' schools chart the future
 By Daniel Scarpinato

Will use different strategies to make improvements



Two local elementary schools share similar profiles - both serve mainly minority and low-income populations, both are located on the South Side and both have been labeled "failing."

But a recent announcement by the state has highlighted the different atmospheres inside.
There's Craycroft Elementary, 5455 E. Littletown Road, where news came March 16 that the state will be kicking out the principal and replacing him with a "turnaround" expert. That's caused mixed reactions from parents, who seem torn over whether to protest the state decision or take the risk of trying out someone new.
Six miles away, at Van Buskirk Elementary, 725 E. Fair St., there's a sense of relief. Despite the "failing" label, the state has stopped short of removing its popular principal.
Van Buskirk has seen major changes the past two years. First-time Principal Chandra Thomas, a 34-year-old former curriculum specialist in the Tucson Unified School District's African studies department, has breathed new life into the school, her colleagues say.
The bell still rings at 2:30 p.m. most days, but school isn't over. Thomas has redirected funds into community programs. Parents and grandparents are taking classes in parenting and technology. There are library nights where families can come in and read. Soon, she hopes to offer GED courses for parents seeking high school diplomas.
Van Buskirk also has done more than align its curriculum with the state standards - something State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says Craycroft has failed to do. Thomas and her staff have made school operations transparent, with parents invited to sit in on classes, eat lunch with kids and attend school-sponsored dinners.
"We have made such an effort," Thomas said. "It's 24-7. There is not one staff member who has not gone home with Van Buskirk on their mind and woken up with Van Buskirk on their mind. Right now, our challenge is keeping up that stamina."
That's especially challenging because Thomas is eight months pregnant with her second child. Waiting desperately for her lunch to arrive last Wednesday (her craving that day was a Philly cheese steak), she stood in the school's main office surrounded by the fruits of her labor: to her left, a colorful display of daily attendance; to her right, calendars full of parent classes; and above, goals such as "mutual respect" for students and teachers.
"She hit the ground running and hasn't stopped," said Jodi Houtz, a fifth-grade teacher who's been at Van Buskirk for 30 years.
But the current energy on campus wasn't the case a year ago, when the state put the school in the "failing" category.
"The first-round reaction was 'wow.' It was disappointing," Houtz said. "But we pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps and discussed it openly."
Norma Becerril says she's seen improvements in communication with parents and in classroom curriculum since Thomas has been in charge, though she hasn't been able to take advantage of all the new programs at her daughter and nephew's school because she works during the day, like many of the school's parents.
"I don't know (Thomas) personally, but I feel like the school is improving," she said.
Thomas said she thinks the work eventually will pay off. So far, it's saved the school the grief Craycroft is facing. But it hasn't translated into stunning test scores or "excelling" labels from the state.
Last year, Thomas' first at the school, Van Buskirk was labeled as "underperforming" for the third year in a row - hence the "failing" label. That's based on a combination of AIMS test scores and factors such as academic progress and attendance.
Still, Horne says a team of specialists, who visited the school and evaluated Thomas, are confident she has the ability to improve things - not just in morale or cozy programs, but in hard numbers.
Horne says getting rid of Principal Hans Schot is a necessary step for results at Craycroft. Parent-Teacher Organization President Maria Maldonado says it's a blow to school morale. And it doesn't matter what kind of stamp of approval the new principal has from the state - he or she won't be even given a chance.
"The first thing we're going to hear is, 'We're not going to like him,' " Maldonado said.
Schot did not return calls.
Even if some parents want to protest the change, there's no turning back, Horne says. He's so confident a new principal will turn things around, he hasn't considered a backup plan.
"These individuals have been very carefully screened," he said of the pool of candidates the Sunnyside Unified School District will get to hire from. Their names are not being released.
Van Buskirk still needs to make huge gains, and Thomas is reluctant to flaunt her initial success. Just because the state passed on putting in a new principal doesn't mean there won't be more intervention and close observations.
The real test comes this fall, when the next round of state labels is released.
● Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 573-4195 or at dscarpinato@azstarnet.com.