“We can see you guys out there, and we think to ourselves: right people, right time. We see a future Arizona where folks are astounded at the rapid pace of education improvement. We see an Arizona where young people and older adults seeking the best career of their lives are lining up to work in our schools. We see an Arizona where the blessing of being the first state in the nation with a majority of Latino students is understood to be a driving force behind our rapid acceleration. The right people, the right time.”
Lisa Graham Keegan to Arizona’s low-income ‘A’ school leaders, June 2014
In the summer of 2014, a newly formed “A for Arizona” met with leaders from the 100 public schools in our state that earn ‘A’ grades while serving predominantly low-income students. These leaders are behind a too-often ignored transformation in our state that has turned the corner on education quality, and we wanted to know what it would take for them to aggressively expand the number of students they serve.
Our state has frankly never seen anything like the current expansion of excellence in our schools. We will either recognize this moment for all the potential it offers and double down on the efforts of those who are creating it, or we will lose this momentum and everything it offers our students and our state.
Dr. Sybil Francis wrote a great blog post here about the fabulous work at the Beat the Odds project at the Center for the Future of Arizona. That project is 10 years old, and has been a significant catalyst to the growth of excellent schools serving low-income students.
Recently, Janice Palmer wrote here about the fabulous vision of the Helios Foundation in Arizona, whose work has been transformative in the lives of Arizona’s Latino students and subsequently the entire system.
Those are two of many efforts across the state – both statewide and local – to increase the quality of education and give our students the opportunity to choose a life path worthy of their potential. And every reputable measure of the quality of schooling for low-income students says that Arizona is making more progress for these students than almost any other state.
At A for Arizona, our work is to recognize excellence and try to expand it. To expand excellence, we must understand what it takes to create it and to do more of it. And where necessary, to makes changes in the law to meet those critical needs. One of those needs – it will not surprise you – is money. And we are pushing hard to add state resources to these excellent schools.
Leaders at the low-income ‘A’ schools we work with are offering the state about 5 weeks of free time on average by starting school earlier, staying later, running Saturday schools to catch students up, and holding summer session so that nobody falls behind. This is beyond laudable; it is remarkable. This relatively small set of schools has driven Arizona’s school progress statistics into the top tier. But their efforts will not be sustained or expanded unless we find a way to pay them for the time and talent it takes to do this.
A for Arizona supports additional funds, specifically for exceptional schools, because we can see what the additional investment creates for our students and our state. We do not fear the accusation that paying these schools more is somehow “unfair”.
What we believe is “unfair” is that roughly only 1 in 10 low income students in the state currently has access to an ‘A’-grade school. And, many families have placed their children on wait lists, desperately hoping to get into the public district, magnet, and charter schools that offer this kind of excellence.
We have to make a very specific bet on these successful school leaders, believing they can grow or replicate and that their work will inspire others. Many current ‘A’ leaders will tell you they learned what works from other schools they saw succeeding.
The reason to pay more for proven excellence is that it costs more. What we cannot afford to do is to pay for excellence where it doesn't yet exist. Excellence is a daily decision in action that a growing number of school teams have made and continue to make. We need to get behind their efforts and let them expand their work. By growing these schools, we greatly increase the odds that others will join them and earn this same increase in support for the kind of work that it takes to be worthy of our students.
Lisa Graham Keegan is the former State Superintendent of Public Instruction and Executive Director of A for Arizona, a project of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.