Santa Cruz Beats the Odds . . . Well, Not Entirely

September 17, 2012

Rodney Rich, superintendent of Santa Cruz Unified School District #35, hasn’t seen this any other place he’s worked.

Students, he says, are happy being at Rio Rico High School.

The circumstances are ideal.  Rio Rico and the five other little communities that make up the district don’t have a downtown, don’t have a shopping mall, don’t have too many of the troublemakers that bedevil some of the big-city schools.  There’s no distractions, few disruptions.   The schools are the center of the kids’ attention.

And they have the full support of parents as well.  Santa Cruz is one of the poorer counties in the state but it has a family orientation, a tradition of taking care of one another.  Parents might not speak English but they want their kids to do well in school, want them to learn English.

The schools have taken those expectations seriously.  By all appearances, they have done everything in their power beginning with kindergarten to get the kids to the point of loving high school.

And done extremely well with those responsibilities. Last month the district was awarded an “A” by the state for its efforts.  That’s unusual by itself.  Of the many districts in the state that encompass the elementary grades, only 22 received A’s.

Even more remarkable is this:  The students of Santa Cruz are nearly all Hispanic, a great majority economically disadvantaged.

A Rarity Among Districts

Only three of the state’s  “A” districts are made up primarily of disadvantaged, minority students.  Santa Cruz Unified is one.  The second is neighboring Nogales; the third, in Dateland, is almost too small to count.   The remaining 19 “A” districts are made up of large majorities of well-off, white kids.  The real lesson in the state’s grading system.

Santa Cruz’s accomplishment gives the district plenty to cheer about.

Unfortunately though, there is a more distressing side to this story.

Despite the steadfast effort of the Santa Cruz educators, 25 percent of its 3,400 students are not meeting the state reading standards, 40 percent the math standards, nearly 60 percent the writing and science standards.

By comparison, three districts up in Tucson – Catalina Foothills, Tanque Verde, and Vail – compete with each other for the best record in the state.  Only 8 percent or so of their students fall short in reading, 17-18 percent in math, 22 percent or less in writing, 15 percent or less in science.

Santa Cruz was thrilled that its 7th-graders reached that level in reading this year.  Overall though the district gets an “A” due to other factors in  the state grading system such as growth in student achievement, graduation and dropout rates, and the progress of English Language Learners.  If one just compares overall test results in any given year, Santa Cruz falls far short of the Big 3.

Similar effort by educators, similar attention to the design of instruction methods and curriculum, and yet very different results.  Is this the fault of teachers?  The students?

Whom — or What — Is to Blame?

This question is a political hot potato, which in recent weeks has caused a lot of agitation in the Chicago teachers’ strike.  The national debate is pitched.  Should teachers (and schools and school districts) be held accountable for student achievement regardless of the circumstances?  Or should it be the first order of business to deal with the socio-economic factors that contribute to kids underperforming?  Can either of those approaches carry the day without the other?

Rich acknowledges that Santa Cruz Valley, like a growing number of other districts, is having trouble attracting qualified teachers.  He says graduates of the state universities aren’t interested in a rural setting.  As a result, the district is bringing in help from as far away as Oregon and Michigan.

But there’s no doubt in his mind as to what’s behind the differing results.

Rich scoffs at the common perception that all children “come to the starting line” equally prepared to start kindergarten.  The truth, he says, is that a number of them are far less ready for school than others.

As a result, Santa Cruz is forever trying to help its students play catch up.   The district:

  • Channels all its Title I money to provide supplemental reading programs for kindergarten through second grade.  The belief is that getting those children to read early and read well is the most important thing the district can do.
  • Adheres to an instructional protocol that is specially designed to help, to use Rich’s term, “children of poverty.”
  • Successfully moves its students out of the English Language Learners program and into mainstream classes at one of the best paces in the state.
  • Expects its teachers to pay diligent attention to the lingering effects of those language deficiencies, for instance in vocabulary, even through the high school years.

And yet with all that, Rich says he doesn’t know that the Santa Cruz students “will ever do as well as the children of Vail.”

Girding Up for Test Day

In an attempt to level the playing field, he makes no bones about trying to “game the system” by paying plenty of attention to the tests the students must take.  That practice has its critics, but Rich is unflinching.  “I’m trying to help my kids do the best they can.  If you say I’m teaching to the test, well, I don’t care.”

To do that, the district works hard to align its curriculum with state standards.  Part of the purpose is so students aren’t surprised by anything on test days.  Even that isn’t easy.  The tests, Rich says, have an unintended upper middle-class orientation.

He laughs, for instance, at a word problem that required choosing the best deal for a rental car.  The question contained an extra puzzle for many of his students.  “If their family needs a car, they borrow their uncle’s,” he says.  “Most of them don’t know what a rental car is.”

Although the district has achieved better results than many others in similar straits, the superintendent is the first to contend that Santa Cruz needs more weapons if it is to get more kids over the hump.  Three questions we as a state should be asking.

Devoting all Title I money to early reading means the district has nothing left for other special help.  The district has shorted other programs to maintain all-day kindergarten after the state cut back its support to half-day.  Rich feels disadvantaged kids need preparation not only from kindergarten but from pre-school as well.  And he believes strongly that the ELL program needs to be altered to work better.

Rich has lobbied Phoenix directly.  Now he’s trying to educate parents to help make the case for their children, well-realizing that the decision-makers at the Capitol are in a different place than Rio Rico.

– Richard Gilman




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