Her Big Goal: The Best School District

September 17, 2012

Folks stopping in for a loaf of bread at the country store would sometimes take the opportunity to bend the owner’s ear.

Anne Gibson listened patiently.  But by the time they finished fussing about the challenges of their rapidly growing enclave on the southeast fringe of Tucson, she managed to plant a little seed of her own.

Years before she was elected to the Vail Unified School District board and thereafter became its president, Gibson turned any discussion about the community into a rallying cry for the schools.

Her throwdown: “Hey guys come on, why can’t our district be the best in the state?”

Such a proposition might be ambitious for anywhere, but in Vail it sounded particularly outlandish.  Founded in 1903 as a one-room schoolhouse way out in the boondocks, the Vail “district” sputtered along for many years teaching maybe 30 or 40 children of ranchers and silver miners.

But then progress began encroaching on the creosote.  IBM plopped a facility – now the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park – in its midst.  The first of 5,000+ houses began popping up in the massive Rita Ranch development.

Pretty soon the Vail district was expanding in particularly explosive fashion.  Voters recalled school boards faster than schools could be built.

For Gibson to suggest that the best district could somehow arise out of the tumult was what management consultants used to call a big hairy audacious goal.  But her ambitions paid off.  In 2011 , Vail was ranked by the state Department of Education as the top large school district in the state.

Gibson made “a tremendous difference,” says longtime Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker.  “She was absolutely relentless in casting the vision that we’re going to be the best school district in the state.”

Vail’s subsequent success suggests that Arizona, which is struggling to raise the bar for education, could use a few more Anne Gibson’s.  Perhaps many more.

That the first step toward getting better schools is expecting better schools is the premise behind a growing statewide organization, appropriately named Expect More Arizona.  Gibson’s push in that direction preceded Expect More Arizona, and she has no affiliation to it.  But she might be the poster parent for what the organization wants to accomplish.

Gibson explains she has “always lived with the philosophy that if you think you can be good, you will be good.  Once people begin believing they can be the best, they perform to that standard.

“If you keep saying it, other people begin to say it, it begins to mushroom.”

Even so, she deflects the credit for what has transpired to Baker and others.  And indeed there’s much more to Vail’s success than an aspiration.

Part of the explanation is a happy coincidence of leadership style and circumstance.

School administrators were a little taken back when Gibson, shortly after coming aboard the school board in 1999, again laid down her challenge – this time for all to hear.  The district had plenty enough issues dealing with exponential growth.  They didn’t need someone raising the bar sky-high.

Nonetheless, they held their tongue.  “We could have frustrated her, sent her away,” Baker says of Gibson.  But they didn’t.

Gibson, who ended up serving 12 years on the school board, praises Baker for his openness to community input.  “Cal has a way of bringing people together.  His personality is to involve people in 10,000 committees,” she says.  “He’s not afraid to try new things.”

Moreover, Vail was not burdened, at least in those days, with the heavy socioeconomic burdens that hold back others.  Many in the early waves of newcomers were upwardly mobile.

Baker provided continuity as the district grew like topsy.  Gibson notes that the average stay of superintendents is “something like 2 1/2 years” as they move up the ladder from one district to the next.  “Cal never viewed it that way,” Gibson says.  “He viewed this as his mission, to make Vail the very best district it could be.”

Yet he too was just part of the picture.

Expect More Arizona’s chief executive is Pearl Chang Esau, a former teacher.  She is pointed in saying, “Educators can’t do it alone.”

High expectations  by the public quickly have to “turn into commitment,” she says.  “It has to follow the talk.”

Part, she explains,” is expecting more of ourselves.  Exercise your civic voice as a voter.  Volunteer your time and talent.  There’s a lot people can do to support education.”

Although perhaps she wasn’t any ol’ citizen, Gibson once again is the model.   A born promoter, she instinctively put her action where her mouth was.

Back in the day when she ran her country store, Gibson and her buddies organized a festival that over 11 years raised $110,000 for the Vail Education Foundation.

Gibson went on to top that.  She initiated and for a long time organized Vail Pride Day, an event held at the Pima County Fairgrounds that each year gives the schools and their students a chance to strut some of the stuff that has made Vail the best district in the state.

– Richard Gilman



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