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.

“Half of our students come into school as English language learners,” Smith says. “It can take year after year to learn the language, which makes it very difficult for them to achieve academically. So the sooner we have them proficient in English, the sooner they can master [their academic skills].”

Other reforms contributed to these academic gains, but school officials say much of the district’s progress can be attributed to the longer year. Now students have more time to master classroom lessons, and teachers have more time for remedial work with those who are struggling academically. There’s also more time for music, physical education, and other school activities that enrich student learning.

For students who attend Balsz from kindergarten to eighth grade, Smith says, the extended calendar results in a full extra year of instruction.

Learning how to make a difference

Baltz’s dramatic turnaround has its origins in the 2008 hiring of Smith as superintendent. The board, he says, made it clear that its priority was to improve academic performance.

Attention turned to the possibility of a longer school year because Smith already was struggling with problems surrounding the 180-day calendar. Teacher planning time and early release days were poorly scheduled and proving disruptive. Spring break was scheduled right before state tests were given -- a time when teachers should have been prepping students for those exams.

Spring break wasn’t the only problem. The school calendar included other long breaks -- sometimes two or three weeks -- between each academic quarter, Smith says. These breaks originally were intended to allow brief remedial sessions “where kids could come back and have something like summer school -- a week or two for catching up on material and trying to fill any gaps in knowledge.”

But, in reality, he says, scheduling this remediation was difficult and expensive. Because attendance wasn’t mandatory, many struggling students didn’t take advantage of the catch-up time, and instead lost ground academically.

A longer, better-organized school calendar seemed a more effective way to provide time for student learning, Smith says. But what pushed the idea into the boundaries of the feasible was an often-overlooked state law that offered a 5 percent funding increase to schools that extended the academic year. Smith suggested the board could initiate a dialogue with teachers and parents about taking such a dramatic step.

Getting the board’s approval simply to explore the issue was important, Smith says. Its support gave him the backing to treat the community dialogue as a serious option. It also ensured the board was part of the deliberations from the beginning, rather than waiting to act on an administration-backed plan.

Bringing everyone into the discussion also was key to ensuring open minds among teachers and the community, Andersen says.

With the board’s go-ahead, Smith’s next step was to create a district committee comprised of representatives from each school, parents, and community members to discuss how to improve the school calendar. Each school also was asked to establish a committee, but the campus-level groups were given an extra charge.

“Their charge was to look at the needs of their school,” Smith says. “It wasn’t their job to look at what was best for other schools or the district. They were to stay focused on their school and the needs of their staff, their students, and their community.”

Asking each school to look out for its own interests strengthened the idea that the calendar debate was about what was best for students and teachers, Smith says.

Board oversight

The board wasn’t idle during this period, Andersen says. Several members attended the district and school committee meetings as observers -- to get a better sense of people’s concerns and the pros and cons of each calendar.

“I was somewhat leery of the process and wanted to make sure the process worked … that our teachers were going to be taken care of,” Andersen says. Financial issues, including the issue of teacher compensation, also worried him. “Even though we were getting a slight bump in the budget [from the state], we were asking more of teachers -- another 20 days a year. And they were only going to get a slight increase in salary. I wanted to be sure they were satisfied with the situation and willing to do it.”

At first, the possibility of teacher opposition seemed real enough. But Smith says he tried to frame the debate so staff wasn’t expecting pay to rise equivalently with the increase in hours worked. Since that wasn’t possible, he says, “I tried to keep the conversation on what’s the right thing to do.”

At the time, the economic downturn of 2008 was making itself felt -- with a round of layoffs. But that actually helped build teacher support for the longer school year. With layoffs ongoing in other districts, some teachers saw any increase in salaries as a positive step. And with growing public support for the district’s efforts, voters gave the district a financial boost by approving a tax override the next year.

In the end, the district was able to offer teachers a 9 percent salary increase in return for an 11-percent longer school year.

As a result, by the time the board held a final public hearing on the issue, public and staff support for the longer year had gained momentum -- and the proposal subsequently passed unanimously.

As the positive impact of the extended year became apparent, the board’s decision has further strengthened community support for the schools. That was shown most clearly when voters approved a $20 million bond, and a number of business and nonprofit groups began offering financial support for innovative district projects.

“Balsz has become synonymous with innovation. It’s seen as a district that’s doing something different, challenging the paradigm,” Smith says. “So people are seeking us out now to be a partner.”

Such success owes much to board-superintendent teamwork, Andersen says.

“We’ve had good leadership,” he says. “That leads people to trust the school board and administration’s decisions. I know it doesn’t happen with all school boards. But when I got here in 2000, it was there -- a sense of trust and consensus -- and we continue to have that.”

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.