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Fri, Sept. 20

Column: It's about learning - not just buildings, budgets

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, the Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) Governing Board members had a difficult, but necessary, task before them - they needed to fix a $2.1 million gap in the district's 2015-16 budget. That is no small task, and their solution to close Miller Valley Elementary and Washington Traditional schools does not address some of the bigger issues that have brought them to their decision.

I attended the Governing Board meeting on Oct. 28 where district administrators and board members stated that our community has an aging population and consequently, enrollment at PUSD is declining because families are not moving into Prescott. However, I was stunned by what was not being addressed.

The truth is many families have chosen to leave the traditional district public schools. Just this year BASIS School Prescott opened its doors to 370 students from schools in the three surrounding districts. Many of our public charter schools and private schools have waiting lists of students who want to enroll. How is this a bad thing? In fact, parents and students should always have the opportunity to choose a school that will best meet their needs! Even as a former public school teacher and principal, I have always been a staunch supporter of school choice, whether parents choose a district public school, a public charter school, a private school, or home school.

After teaching for a decade in Phoenix and spending 10 years in private business, I returned to education with the goal of reforming a system I felt was stagnant and inflexible for students and parents.

My son attended an A+ school in Phoenix that left a lot to be desired. After serving as PTA president and doing all I could as a parent, I knew my next step was to return to education and reform it from the inside out.

In 1994, I was fortunate to be chosen as the principal at Kiva Elementary School, a very good K-6 school in the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD).

Interestingly, I later learned that at one time the SUSD Governing Board had previously considered closing Kiva. The school itself was in an aging building located on valuable land in the Town of Paradise Valley, and had an enrollment that had slipped below 400. When I became principal, enrollment was around 600 and grew to 725 in three years. We had approximately 125 students who chose to come from outside our boundaries, driving by many elementary schools on their way to Kiva.

I saw firsthand how school choice and open enrollment could work even in traditional public district schools.

What made the difference at Kiva was our site-based, shared decision-making school model that allowed the teachers, parents and me to have local control of our curriculum, textbooks, hiring, and organization. We were allowed to be independent within the SUSD system. The teachers and parents worked in harmony on the Leadership Council and on related committees. Everyone bought in to all aspects of our school.

Today, across our state, parents are seeking a school like Kiva, as well as the many public charter schools and private schools. Parents, students and teachers want to be part of a school where children and learning - not programs, buildings and budgets - come first.

In the midst of this PUSD restructuring, I hope the teachers and principals are allowed to have greater autonomy, and that parents will have a seat at the table where their ideas are sincerely heard and considered. We do not need to simply rearrange the chairs on the deck. We as a community need to understand what is happening in schools of choice and trust our parents, teachers and principals.

I am concerned that the decision to place all fifth- and sixth-graders at Granite Mountain will require a student going through the PUSD system to transition through four different schools: elementary (K-4), intermediate at Granite Mountain (5-6), middle at Mile High (7-8), and the high school (9-12). While this solution may fit the buildings and budgets, it does not provide for families who desire less disruption that moving from school to school can bring. Nor does it foster a strong school community.

We are fortunate in Arizona that parents have choices for their child's education. District public schools can be as focused, autonomous and high achieving, meeting the needs of students and their families in a way public charter and private schools do. PUSD must address how the district schools can better compete, meet higher standards and produce exceptional outcomes that our community deserves.

Dr. Billie Orr has been active in Arizona public education as a parent, teacher and principal for over 25 years, and served as associate superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education. She resides in Prescott and is the president-elect of the Republican Women of Prescott.

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