School kids running to camera in elementary school hallway

"The work is not over, and I don’t see anyone on that campus shying away from the challenge ahead."

Discussion about education in Arizona often results in strongly stated opinions from widely varying perspectives. Although consensus seems lacking with regard to the path toward improvement, all parties seem to agree that public education needs improvement. Herein, Peoria’s oldest elementary school should become center to discussions.

Early last month school principal, Brenda Lopresto posted a message for everyone in the Peoria Pirate community to see: “WE DID IT.  Congratulations students, staff, and families! In one year we moved from a D to a B. Everyone’s hard work is paying off.” The Arizona State Board of Education had just released its annual school letter grades, which uses a formula including academic measures from the AzMERIT test, as well as academic growth markers.

That state grade of a “B” means far more than it might seem at first glance. For the 2017-18 school year Peoria Elementary, with economic and other challenges, was graded as a “D” school. That was lowest graded school in the Peoria Unified district. That hits where it hurts for teachers, administrators, and more importantly kids and their parents. That grade means systemically, something isn’t working.  Unlike sports teams where the coach can be fired and all the players traded, schools don’t trade up - they must work their way through a battlefield of challenges the hard way. Because failure is not an option in education, Peoria Elementary’s crew embarked on a yearlong crusade beginning with the very basics

Lopresto told me it started with making sure kids were in school, every day. She and her staff made daily home visits when kids didn’t show up. Daily attendance average skyrocketed.  After School enrichment clubs coordinated by already overworked classroom teachers offered creative, extended learning beyond the classroom. Kids show up in big numbers. Staff turnover, often seen as a negative, became a springboard for Lopresto. Her nod for young teachers toward basic techniques like breaking concepts into the smallest pieces for ease of understanding, and hands-on experimentation such as the campus Learning Gardens have teachers excited to teach and kids anxious to learn

Communities have to care about their local schools. At a very basic level, good schools generally mean positive home values. Residents, businesses, and community groups answered this school’s call.  

Parents make school functions a priority now, and communications are improving.  Several Peoria businesses have responded with pizza, ice cream and cupcakes to celebrate mounting successes in classrooms throughout the school. The local library volunteer organization, as well as the Lion’s Club has spent more than a year noodling methods to encourage free-time reading among the Pirate student community.

President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  I firmly believe it.  

The Peoria Elementary kids have a new bounce in their step.  Teachers are wearing their pride, with a shadow of fatigue. The community around the school feels better about itself.  A win is a win, and this win Lopresto can celebrate.  

The work is not over, and I don’t see anyone on that campus shying away from the challenge ahead.

For today — this moment – let’s talk about success in public education.  

Vicki Hunt is a Peoria city councilwoman and mayor pro tem.