School Board Success Story: Arizona

By Del Stover

After years of lagging academic performance within their district, the leaders of Arizona’s Balsz Elementary School District were searching for a way to turn things around.  In 2009, they hit upon a bold approach: extending the school year by 20 days -- a policy move that has sparked a remarkable change of fortune for the K-8 district that serves a high-poverty section of Phoenix.

“The lesson is, if you don’t like the results you’re getting, do something different,” says school board member Fred Andersen. “If you don’t do anything, then what’s going to change?”

The move to a 200-day calendar was a leap of faith, but Andersen says the board felt it had to take action: At the time, two schools in the 2,800-student district were underperforming, and student test scores were stagnant in the others. Indeed, the district’s performance was so disappointing that Balsz was at risk of an eventual state takeover.

So, Andersen says, “We felt it was a worthwhile risk.”

The risk ultimately paid off. Just two years after the longer school year went into effect, test scores in reading had risen 43 percent in the fifth and sixth grades, and 19 percent in the third and fourth grades. Some students who once scored in the 20th and 30th percentiles in reading and math now are reading in the 70th percentile.

What’s more, the extra month of instruction each year is having a profound impact on English language learners (ELLs), says Superintendent Jeffrey Smith. The number of ELL students reclassified as fluent in English has doubled, meaning these students are better prepared for the academic rigors of high school.

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