Turning Around a Reservation School
Consider a community in which people cannot own property. Where housing consists of trailers or old manufactured homes packed closely together, with options for food and shopping very limited. Where a large population of feral animals poses a consistent threat. With high crime rates, high alcoholism, high gang activity. Would you want to live – or teach – there?
Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Arizona (part of the White Mountain Apache Reservation) is located in such a community. Prior to the arrival of Principal Roy Sandoval in the summer of 2010, the school had the lowest math scores in the state, a 47% graduation rate, and a large population of 18-20 year-old students with less than five credits. There were 291 on-campus drug and alcohol incidents in the 2009 school year (SY2009), and “bootleggers” were selling alcohol to students from land adjoining the campus. There was great rancor and mistrust between teachers and administrators.
Today Alchesay is a much different place, according to Principal Sandoval, who I was fortunate enough to hear speak at the U.S. Department of Education this morning about the effort to turn around the school using a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG).* Test scores went up slightly during the first year of his tenure (they are still waiting for results from this year’s test). More impressive, the school’s 100th Day average attendance is up from 76.38% in SY2009 to 91.23% this year. Drug and alcohol incidents decreased from 291 in SY2009 to just 54 so far in SY2011. The estimated graduation rate for the class of 2012 is over 70%. And the dropout rate is 7.9% so far this year, compared to 24% in SY2009.
Sandoval believes that there are three key components to any successful school turnaround. The first, and the highest priority, is a safe and orderly environment, which the Alchesay staff has created by (among other things) engaging with students, staying visible in strategic areas when students are out and about, and operating as a “free zone” with zero tolerance for gang paraphernalia. According to Sandoval, administrators literally go up to students and pull their colors.
Next, a focus on instruction, assessment and intervention. Among the many ways Alchesay approaches this include common planning for English and math teachers, consulting with instructional coaches, using teacher evaluations to ensure quality, gaining student buy-in, and using specialists (including a student retention counselor, student/family liaison, and others) to address the adversity students face outside of the school. Plus, there is no “That’s not in my job description” – everyone on staff is ready to help wherever needed.
And finally, sustainability. This is where I believe that Sandoval (and others who work on reservations) faces enormous challenges far beyond those in urban or even most rural districts.
Which is why I opened this post talking about the living conditions that teachers in this community face. To be sure, the children of the community face them as well. But teachers often have a greater choice in whether they stay. Sandoval shared a story of a young teacher whose family just had a baby – and decided to move elsewhere to teach because they are afraid to walk with the baby outside.
Sandoval is very clear about the challenges he faces. His school has high faculty turnover. And he believes that he – and others in similar situations – must accept that consistently retaining great teachers for more than three years will not happen. So a key aspect of sustaining the momentum that they have built at Alchesay is coming up with a mechanism to quickly locate a pool of highly qualified candidates (for example, a national educator database) and incentives to lure them to the school for a few years (his ideas include tax waivers or credits, guaranteed student loan forgiveness after three years, and national certification after three years of student growth).
Sandoval also believes that to sustain the momentum, they need a vision for students’ future. There are few economic engines on the reservation, which is (as he has written) “an isolated community with reportedly an 80% unemployment rate. … rife with gangs, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, and violence.” There is a community college on the reservation, but he points out it is set up in a traditional community college model, assuming students work part-time. But there is no work. Most who do not leave the reservation for college, he claims, get sucked into the “vortex.”
He has a vision for a small college on the reservation that offers a four-year degree or two-year vocational certification. It would be run like a high school – students would attend core classes, participate in extracurriculars, and take courses like speech, etiquette, negotiation, and more, giving them two to four more years to mature and prepare to be functional either on or off the reservation. It would, in his words, give many “a fightin’ chance” to succeed.
I was inspired by Roy Sandoval and Alchesay. I am heartened to learn of some of the amazing work that is happening on reservations to make sure that their students have access to a quality education.
At the same time, it was very clear to me that the school is doing all it can for the students it serves. It needs help from the community, and from the government, if it is going to sustain the progress it has made and continue to move forward. As SIG and other federal and state monies dry up (remember, people do not own property on reservations, so there are no local property taxes to bolster school funding), I worry that such help might not be there.
Watch a short student-developed video on the turnaround.
*Note: The information in this post came from Roy Sandoval’s presentation and handouts prepared for a briefing at the U.S. Department of Education on April 26, 2012.
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