We’ll tell you about “Beat the Odds,” a program aimed at training principals from low-income and Latino school districts to help improve graduation rates. That will be followed by a discussion on the issue with Yuma Union High School District Superintendent Toni Badone and Lily Mesa Lema, director of elementary education at the ASU Preparatory Academy.
TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of American Graduate looks at school principals. Several years ago, the center for the future of Arizona recognized that strong leadership often leads to higher graduation rates. That led to the beat the odds institute, a program that trains and supports principals in schools with mostly low income and Latino students. Producer Christina Estes and photographer Langston Fields take us to Quentin Elementary in Avondale.
ERIC ATUANHENE: My name is Eric Atuanhene. I'm the principal of Quentin Elementary. This is my second year. Year two.
CHRISTINA ESTES: As a second year principal, and second year participant in the beat the odds institute, Eric Atuanhene has learned a lot.
ERIC ATUANHENE: I went in thinking I could change the world, you know what I mean. I said no problem. I got this. I'm going to do this. And I'm going to do this quick, right? And I think having those conversations with my mentor understood that ain't no way. Right. It is not going to happen quick. If it does, it is probably false success.
VIDEO: One minute to read your procedures.
CHRISTINA ESTES: With 55 teachers --
VIDEO: Can somebody tell me what the word elite would mean?
CHRISTINA ESTES: And more than 900 students --
VIDEO: Read 32 pages of her new book, right?
CHRISTINA ESTES: Atuanhene had a long to-do list but the smartest move was following his mentor's advice and choosing one area of focus. They picked collaboration.
ERIC ATUANHENE: If you are collaborating right, it affects the culture. And the culture is really the most important thing you want to affect if you are looking at an achieving school. We're still impacting the amount of hours that the library is open. Working together. There are a couple of underlying, underpinnings that support that, right? We have trust for each other. We can have those discussions and we are okay with feeling uncomfortable with the powerful discussions. We have respect for each other because we understand each other's point of view.
CHRISTINA ESTES: They started weekly data chats, looking at student performance, spotting the gaps and making changes. Atuanhene also gathered a team of teachers to attend a conference that re-enforced the collaborative approach.
ERIC ATUANHENE: I didn't want it to come from me. I wanted it to come from the staff. That is how you get ownership. I didn't want buy-in but I wanted ownership because that is more powerful. Teachers presented to the returning staff and so it was kind of like a perfect storm, right. It was communicated. It was worked on. And it was rolled out by the teachers. So, it had I felt greater meaning.
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CHRISTINA ESTES: It is also important for him to get out of the office.
VIDEO: Please look at the screen.
CHRISTINA ESTES: Three days a week, devoted to being on campus. Connecting with students and visiting classrooms to take notes, give compliments --
ERIC ATUANHENE: Impressive.
CHRISTINA ESTES: And share suggestions.
ERIC ATUANHENE: I get 90% of my job done if I'm out there. I'm able to, you know, provide the value and the support that our staff needs when they see me. I think it is refreshing to see our kids and then for them to see me in a different light because I think one of the misnomers is that it is always bad to come to the principal's office and we are the guys that are putting the finger on people. I don't want the kids or staff to feel that way. All right. Got your uniform tucked in. Great job, man. Great job.
CHRISTINA ESTES: For a man used to moving fast, he has learned to slow down a bit.
ERIC ATUANHENE: I think one of the biggest things that my mentor to beat the odds shared with me is that it is a journey. Take your time. Enjoy it.
TED SIMONS: In addition to regular one-on-one meetings with their mentors, the principals also get together as a group to share ideas. Here with more on the impact of principals and administrators on graduation rates is Yuma union high school district superintendent Toni Badone and Lily Mesa Lima, director of elementary education at ASU's preparatory academy. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.
TONI BADONE: Thank you.
LILY MESA LIMA: Thank you.
TED SIMONS: Beat the odds --
TONI BADONE: Yes.
TED SIMONS: Talk about this. Your thoughts.
TONI BADONE: It has been an amazing force in our lives in Yuma union. We have been working with them over a half dozen years. We still are using mentors through them. But I think the biggest idea that really we refined in our district is that clear bottom line and how do you focus on the clear bottom line of what your goal is for your students? And our district, that goal is for every student, emphasis on every, to be ready for college and career and career, ready for success and college and career.
TED SIMONS: Can you see this training moving those students in that direction?
TONI BADONE: Absolutely. Because it moves our leaders. It is our culture.
TED SIMONS: How does this kind of training, this kind of mentorship, general idea, improve graduation rates?
LILY MESA LIMA: So, it keeps us focused. It keeps us with that mentality that we are preparing the students for success in their future. And it is moving beyond just getting them ready to complete a high school diploma. It is getting them ready to be successful through a four-year university. That is our focus. Everything that we do aligns to that mission.
TED SIMONS: And the impact of principals and administrators on that mission?
LILY MESA LIMA: Exactly.
TED SIMONS: Tell us more though.
LILY MESA LIMA: So, empowers us to continue as we innovate in our jobs, in our practices, be able to keep that in mind as always, and influence not just our teachers, but our students as well, and families, in keeping that vision.
TED SIMONS: Talk to -- as far as what principals, what did they need to know? What do they need to learn?
TONI BADONE: 100,000 things they need to know. But most of them they can learn on the job. But what we really insist on is that belief, that belief in every single student. And that prism that you look through when you actually believe in every student has made a huge impact on our schools. For example, we have lowered the number of suspensions. We have 10,500 students. We have lowered the number of suspensions over the last four years by over 1,000. We didn't even know we were doing that. And the reason is because of the belief and the attitude and then the implementation of the very, very important core kinds of things like the curriculum that we're using, Cambridge international curriculum. Like the fact that like this principal, they're in classrooms, principals in classrooms two days a week. Being out there. And the collaboration that they are fostering is a great clip, the fostering of that not just buy-in but ownership. Having teachers own it. A lot of emphasis on professional development.
TED SIMONS: Professional development for teachers we hear about that on occasion. Professional development for principals, it really is important, isn't it?
LILY MESA LIMA: It is extremely important. It is learned on the job. Every single day for the principal is different. You go from being in the classroom one minute, coaching a teacher, to dealing with a student and helping a student see how to learn from a mistake, to moving on to dealing with the community, helping them see. These are part of the reason why we do things in our school to further our mission, to accomplish our goals.
TED SIMONS: When you deal with principals, what questions do they ask the most?
TONI BADONE: Oh, my goodness. Open leadership agenda. But the agenda is -- they can add things to it. Whatever those questions are. They're on that agenda and we deal with them right away. We deal with the questions, but I think also part of it is just practice and coaching. We coach them as superintendent and associate superintendents but we also use external coaches. We bring in the beat the odds coach because that person giving them third-party feedback can sit back and kind of look at things a little differently. All of that helps I think with the culture of literally believing in every person. Not just believing in every student, believing in their parents, in the community, believing in each other.
TED SIMONS: Has that not been done in the past?
TONI BADONE: I would say that the nature of right now, the way things are in education right now in the United States, it's a beat the teachers down kind of -- whether it is teacher evaluations, performance pay, using test scores to evaluate, those are external drivers that are not motivating anyone. What motivates people are fabulous relationships, trust, believing in the kids, and the culture of growth for everybody.
TED SIMONS: I guess finding the right driver makes sense, doesn't it? You have been going down the wrong path for a long time before you realize it is the wrong way to go.
LILY MESA LIMA: Exactly. The leadership meetings where you have that open agenda, that safe space to bring up the issues and have that community to be able to solve those problems is key in leading success.
TED SIMONS: But are there questions that you hear from principals, are there concerns you hear more often than other concerns?
LILY MESA LIMA: Well, sure. I mean, you know, at my school, we have really lean administration, and that's part of, you know, our belief system that, you know, resources need to go directly to the classroom. So what that means for us as administrators is we take on more.
TED SIMONS: Yes.
LILY MESA LIMA: And it is not just the teachers, it is also the administrators who are dealing with more and more on their plate.
TED SIMONS: I was going to say. Please --
TONI BADONE: I would say the biggest issue for administrators these days is having to have a life. And we emphasize that they must have a life outside of the campus. And so we really do work with them on developing ways to get out of the school and out of the -- out of the workplace and enjoy their families and appreciate that. We know we have burn out. We know we have people -- six out of -- in the core group, six out of 16 principal -- 16 principals left us this year.
TED SIMONS: It sounds like a great program and success is being had.
TONI BADONE: Challenges.
TED SIMONS: Congratulations. Good to have you both here.
TONI BADONE: Thank you.
TED SIMONS: Thursday on "Arizona Horizon," the president of the state board of education talks about the board's lawsuit against superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas. And we'll hear about a locally developed car that gets 84 miles a gallon. That's it for now. Thanks for joining us. You have great evening.
VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.
Toni Badone: Yuma Union High School District Superintendent, Lily Mesa Lema: Director of Elementary Education at the ASU Preparatory Academy