A Wake-Up Call Sparks Action in Arizona

By Stephanie Sheaffer, Vail Unified School District, Arizona

Story posted April, 2008.  Results updated October 28, 2014.

• In 2013, Vail exceeded all state proficiency averages, across grades and subjects

• In almost all grade levels, students are scoring at or above proficiency at rates of 90% and higher in reading

Administrators and staff at the Vail Unified School District recognized they had a problem back in 2003. Student scores on the new statewide AIMS test showed a downward trend as children in Vail schools moved up through the grades. For example, while third-graders were scoring in the 70-percent range on average in math, by middle school and high school proficiency rates dropped into the teens.

"It was a real wake-up call," said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Debbie Hedgepeth. "Students weren't performing where we knew they could and should."

Determined to turn things around, administrators and teachers worked together to build a cross-district curriculum that would, in Hedgepeth's words, "guarantee that every student would have the opportunity to learn." The curriculum, adopted as part of a broader effort called "Raising Expectations," is based on a shared understanding of what mastery looks like in key subject areas including reading and math.

To make the changes stick, the district coupled a new assessment system with a commitment to provide individual attention to those students whose performance was lagging. "It's not enough to teach and assess. We have to act on the outcome of that assessment," said Hedgepeth.

Across the district, schools have a half hour built into every academic day for a period known as "Reteach and Enrich." This is a time, Hedgepeth explained, when children who have not mastered a particular lesson receive additional, individualized instruction, typically from a different teacher. Meanwhile, the other students can continue with their lessons at a higher level.

Students who are not keeping up with their peers also have a chance to catch up during regular breaks in the school calendar. Vail School District has adopted a schedule with a shorter summer break, and more breaks throughout the year, so that teachers can work with students who are not meeting standards - without the extra attention getting in the way of other students' learning.

As a result of these and other changes, test scores among Vail students have shown a marked ivailgraphresize.jpgmprovement. According to Hedgepeth, close to 90 percent of students now are meeting or exceeding grade-level standards in reading, writing and math. And, a higher percentage of students now are exceeding the standard. The improved test scores prompted the Arizona Department of Education to label all 11 elementary, middle and high schools in the district as "excelling" for the 2006-2007 school year.

Hedgepeth said that a key to the district's success has been the active involvement of teachers in shaping the new curriculum and assessments. "Teachers have been involved every step of the way. They dug through the data and wrote the assessments, they helped create the academic calendars, and more." She added that implementing a major change like this would not work as a "top-down approach."

"You need to have everyone involved. You need ownership or it's not going to work," she said.

AUGUST 2009 UPDATE: According to Vail’s 2008 Report Card on the Arizona Department of Education website, the district has maintained improvements in upper-grade performance since this story was originally posted. Reading and writing proficiency rates in 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th grades were all above 80% (90% in some cases) and all well above state averages.  Math proficiency rates were 90%, 93%, 84% and 84% (for 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th grades respectively), well above the "teens" levels of 2003.

Further details about this story can be found in our sources:
WestEd, "AZ Students At Risk For Failing AIMS, But Not In Vail", July 2005

Vail School District

For additional information, please contact:
Debbie Hedgepeth
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Professional Development, Vail School District

Photos courtesy of Desert Sky Middle School and Vail District Schools