Changing landscape of schools

By Don Kirkland

Like their counterparts in many U.S. cities, planners in the Kyrene School District see a changing demographic that someday may alter not only the educational landscape but the community as a whole.

It’s a race against time, they suggest, and officials are hoping that studies launched now will guard against the future loss of attributes for which the Kyrene district has gained a widely held reputation for excellence.

A draft plan to guide the study is already in place, and the district has just finished recruiting a parent/staff committee whose members will try to add to the plan and recommend a timetable for changes, all in the light of increasingly limited resources.

Scheduled to undergo scrutiny is virtually every aspect of the Kyrene educational system, from curriculum to staff development, administrative policies to office support.

Although any finished plan would become the foundation of a district-wide template, officials admit that certain areas seem to have greater needs than others.

For example, they say, while most Kyrene students are well prepared to learn because they come from supportive families, a gradual increase is being seen in the number who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Presumed translation: Changing demographics, due in part to what the district calls increased cultural and ethnic diversity, are causing a larger number of students to fall into a lower economic niche, with an apparent impact on their ability to learn.

The results of such demographic changes are being seen at six Kyrene schools, all of which fall under federal Title I guidelines applying to students in disadvantaged areas. Of those six, four are in south Tempe, one in west Chandler, two in Ahwatukee.

An Oct. 27 memorandum from Kyrene Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Menconi outlines how five recently recruited parent members of the new K-8 Programming Study Committee will interact with Kyrene staff representatives during a series of once- or twice-weekly meetings that may last a year or more.

The committee’s starting point will be a list of priorities that are due to be established by the school board Nov. 9. Any changes to existing policies or programs can be implemented as they are approved rather than waiting until the entire study is completed, district officials say.

Why there is a need

Historically, district planners point to growth that occurred in the 1980s and ‘90s, during which the emphasis was on building enough schools to accommodate large numbers of students.

It was during these years, they say, that wide community support and available funding helped the district implement a number of quality curriculum enhancements, such as orchestra, elective programs for middle schools, additional art classes for elementary schools and Spanish for seventh and eighth graders.

However, when the district adopted site-based management, allowing the schools and their departments to function independently, the close working relationship between the district and its schools began to erode.

“This resulted in the lack of coordination between the work of district departments in supporting the schools and differences in instructional strategies and resources utilized in schools,” according to a recent report.

The result, suggests the report, is that student achievement levels between the schools and at times between grade levels within the same school began showing a great deal of variability.

“In addition to this,” notes the report, “it would be expected that an assessment system directly tied to the district curriculum would continue to show an upward performance trend in student achievement.

“This is not the case.”

While the district has been experiencing what it calls a natural cycle of declining enrollment as the community is built out and families are maturing, the resultant drop in per-student dollars, combined with general state-allocation deficits, indicate a funding gap that will only worsen.

The challenge, say district planners, is to ensure that Kyrene schools can maintain the quality educational system which has attracted many new families to the area for more than 20 years.

And that, they say, is the job being given to the K-8 Programming Study Committee.

Says the report:

“The careful analysis of all programs to ensure they are providing maximal benefit to our students will help to ensure that the programmatic investments being made positively impact student achievement.”

No small goal, to be sure.