Just Thinking

Benson: The Little District That Could — and Did

by Richard Gilman

What are the ingredients of a top-performing school district?

Dr. David Woodall would like it known there’s no magic pill, no easy solution, no quick fix.

Woodall bears listening to. He’s superintendent of the Benson Unified School District, which the Arizona Department of Education has just anointed as the top-scoring district in the state.

This ranks as a phenomenal accomplishment for a rural town, population 5,100, with barely more than 1,000 students. Equally significant, half of those students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, far more than normal for a high-flying district.

“We’re a pretty average community,” Woodall observes.  Even that is a bit of an overstatement, at least from an economic standpoint.   The three census tracts covering Benson and beyond have median household incomes ranging from $31,500 to $41,500. By comparison, the statewide median is more than $49,000.

That hasn’t kept townspeople from giving consistent support to the district, even for bond elections and budget overrides.  The schools are the biggest thing going in town and Benson has made the most of them.   The investment has paid off handsomely.

Benson scored highest of all the unified districts – those that go from elementary through high school – in the 2013 school grades announced by the state on August 1. Of a possible 200 points, it tallied 161. The next highest districts – Vail and San Simon – each had 157.

The top score doesn’t mean Benson has the smartest kids, nor even that they did best on the state achievement tests. Raw test scores account for half of the state rankings. The other half is calculated from student improvement on those tests and from the reduction in dropouts.

Hoping For An ‘A’ and Getting Even More

Woodall knew the performance of his charges was edging upward, enough he hoped to obtain the 140 points required to earn an “A” rating from the state. In his wildest moments, he dared to wonder if the district might “crack the top 10.” But finishing first? The thought, he says, never crossed his mind.

That the district has risen to such heights deserves close examination. Others would be wise to follow Benson’s lead – or at least try. Unfortunately, school districts generally don’t seem much interested in learning from others. As of a few weeks ago, only two had come calling in Benson.

This might be the result of size.  Benson needs only one primary school to go with its middle and high schools.  All three are lined up
near the center of town in a complex that sings of familiarity, coordination, and tight monitoring.

In many ways, the district might be the perfect size.  Large enough to need three or four teachers at each grade level, just enough to compare results.  Small enough to know all the students in any grade, and to care whether each of them is keeping up.

But as a result, maybe the big districts think that comparing notes with Benson is pointless. After all, they are dealing with many schools in many locations in many circumstances.  They wouldn’t want to admit that a portion of the complexity they face is self-induced from allowing, even encouraging, about as many different approaches as they have schools.

They should be asking, in light of Benson’s success, whether they should stop the proliferation of methodologies and instead focus on perfecting one of them.

Woodall, who served in Morenci as a teacher and for 17 years as superintendent, landed in Benson eight years ago. An affable man with a lanky frame, a deeply tanned, mustachioed face, and a subtle drawl in his voice, the superintendent looks and sounds as if he’d be entirely at home on one of the nearby ranches. He takes on questions as a calf roper would round up a heifer. Rope it in, wrestle it down, tie it up.

His answers frequently are given to “pushing.” In a recent conversation, he repeated over and over how “it takes pushing . . . real effort” to improve school performance.

Recipe for Success

But pushing what? Razzmatazz wouldn’t play well in an unassuming place like Benson, and there is no razzle-dazzle in Woodall’s response. He offers a succinct outline for getting results:

  • Improve the quality of staff. Benson seeks to replace each person who departs with someone better. Replace a so-so teacher with a good one. Replace a good teacher with a great one. Attracting top-notch talent to rural towns is more difficult, but Benson is aided to a degree by its relative proximity to Tucson.
  • Get everyone pointing in the same direction. All programs and activities need to be pointed at a singular objective, rather than haphazardly trying to be all things to all people. In Benson, the goal is getting students to master the state’s learning standards.
  • Choose the right curriculum and work it hard. Benson was first to take advantage of neighboring Vail’s offer to make its highly successful curriculum available to others. Important as the choice is, the decision is just the run-up to the real battle of getting teachers to give up their old ways and embrace the new.
  • Most importantly, Woodall says, constantly assess – that is to say, test – student progress and act upon the results. Teachers need to know how well their teaching method worked and which students need to be re-taught that particular segment.

The outline is a textbook example of nailing down the fundamentals. Simple as that, and yet it is anything but easy to do. Witness all the school districts that are struggling.

Choosing a Path

The difference, and this is important as anything, is how well Benson knits it all together. The choice of strategies and programs can be momentous but even the best plans will falter without leadership and execution.

Appearances aside, Woodall is not at all a cowboy. He is though a long-distance runner who has finished more than his share of marathons. One of his running buddies is Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker.

While training for one of those marathons five years ago, Baker casually asked Woodall if he’d be interested in trying Vail’s nascent Beyond Textbooks program. Nonchalant or not, the adroit Baker surely had been pondering if and how to make the program available to other districts.

His overture was certainly tempting. Being offered up on a silver platter was a curriculum plan custom-made to Arizona education standards. Districts the size of Benson just don’t have the resources to do that on their own.

Nonetheless, Woodall hesitated. He saw the potential – and he saw the pitfalls.

When it comes to aligning intentions and programs, this was a big one. There could be no half-way. The entire staff would have to fully embrace the program. The content had to be good, and so did the job of selling it up and down the ranks.

Although Woodall gives all credit for Benson’s success to teachers and administrators, it has to be said that he managed pretty darn well. While some 70 districts now participate in the Beyond Textbooks program, none have done so more successfully than Benson. Woodall falls back on the running connection with Baker to explain why.

One can adequately train for a marathon, he says, by using any of several training regimens. Any will work if they are followed faithfully. What doesn’t work, he contends, is cherry-picking bits and pieces of various approaches.

“You have to follow one plan with fidelity,” he says. It’s the only highbrow phrase he uses in the whole conversation.

Committing in Full

By whatever wording, he knew the message wouldn’t sit well with those teachers stuck in the past. They had been doing it their way for 40 years. Why change now? Nor would it be popular with the faddists who are eager to try every flavor of the month.

These are the trials of a superintendent.   One of the tests of any leader is choosing, and choosing smartly, when to allow staff members to follow their own instincts and when to insist they fall into line. This determination may depend some on the situation, some on leadership style, but it means consistently saying “no” when the line is crossed.

Woodall, who has honed his instincts in 25 years at the helm in Morenci and Benson, says some items just aren’t negotiable.

One of the beauties of the Vail curriculum, for instance, is that it spells out how long and in what order each standard is to be taught. Some teachers recoiled at the idea of following a prescribed schedule but they’ve had no choice but to come around. Every classroom is on the same page at essentially the same time. The coordination paves the way for students to be tested simultaneously across classrooms, evaluated together, comparisons made.

The comparisons force a teacher whose students underperformed on a particular segment to look at herself in the mirror. How could she have better approached the subject? What can she learn from her colleagues?

This by itself isn’t easy. “The teacher is a little bit exposed. It’s hard for them to do,” Woodall acknowledges.

A Growing Experience

But the exercise is intended to be instructive not punitive. While Benson does not use the term, some districts refer to the process of three or four teachers of a particular grade getting together to review results as “professional learning communities.” The label may seem a little highfalutin’ but it’s actually a good description. If done right, the teachers work as a team, they share responsibilities, they learn from each other.

The teacher who stumbles on a particular lesson will handle it better next year. It’s a steady rhythm of continuous improvement for both instructor and pupil.

Their progress may be jostled by the impending introduction of the Common Core standards but Woodall, marathoner that he is, maintains that Benson will stay the course.

“We’re going to be taking the same approach this year, next year, the year after that,” he says. With such unswerving fidelity, his schools will keep pushing the performance curve.  Small town or not, Benson is giving its children an education.

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