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Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun file 

Coconino’s Brooklyn Wong (10) braces herself as Flagstaff runner Aryn Drye (5) charges into being tagged out at second in a game last season.

Fierce fire season feared for Flagstaff, statewide

A fall and winter that have seen near record-low precipitation is setting up the state for what could be a ferocious fire season, state officials said on Thursday.

In a presentation in Phoenix, Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney said conditions now are even more concerning than they were in the months leading up to some of the state’s biggest blazes: the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the 2005 Cave Creek Complex and the 2011 Wallow Fire.

That applies to forests above the Mogollon Rim as well. The amount of winter precipitation seen on the Kaibab National Forest, just west of Flagstaff, is on par with 1996, 2000 and 2006, which were some of the worst fire years for the Kaibab and the state. This winter is the Kaibab’s second driest in the past 25 years with snowpack 80 percent to 85 percent below average, according to Forest Fuels Specialist Drew Leiendecker.

Ponderosa pine forests, chaparral and pinyon-juniper woodlands are all stressed due to drought, while finer fuels like grasses that regrew and greened up during the summer monsoon have dried out as well, Whitney said.

This year, there isn’t any one part of the state that poses a bigger wildfire danger than the other, Whitney said.

“This year every fuelbed at every elevation in the state is my biggest concern,” he said.

Most of the state is in moderate or severe drought and the climactic outlook for the next three months is “quite alarming,” Whitney said.

Emery Cowan / Kaibab National Forest  

This graph shows the moisture levels of larger fuels in forests above the Mogollon Rim (black line) at historic or near historic lows (red line) this winter. Low moisture levels mean those fuels are more prone to burn in a wildfire. 

Above the Mogollon Rim, fire managers got a taste of what fire conditions are looking like in the state’s higher elevations with the Gate 13 Fire that burned 1,290 acres at Camp Navajo west of Flagstaff in early February.

“We should not see that kind of active fire spread in February at that elevation -- that just speaks to how dry it is and how receptive fuels are,” said Art Gonzales, fire staff officer on the Kaibab.

Models the Forest Service usually uses to predict fire behavior didn’t work on that incident because this year is so different from past Februaries, Gonzales said.

“Most of the time those places are under snow,” he said.

Even with the dismal winter moisture levels, northern Arizona could be spared an intense wildfire season if the area receives heavy spring moisture, Gonzales said.

But in case that doesn’t happen, the forest is looking at ramping up public communication about wildfire prevention and implementing fire restrictions earlier in the season, Gonzales said.

In anticipation of an especially challenging fire year, Gov. Doug Ducey has requested a doubling in state funding dedicated to fire prevention, from $1 million to $2 million. That includes funds to remove hazardous vegetation and more. 

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NAU teaching partnership gives graduates confidence in the classroom

A unique partnership between Cromer Elementary School and Northern Arizona University’s College of Education is preparing future teachers for the classroom before they even start student teaching.

The state of Arizona requires only 45 hours of student teaching in the classroom in order to graduate with a degree. At NAU, teacher candidates -- college students studying to become teachers -- are required to complete at least 135 hours of practicum in the three semesters prior to student teaching as well as the 45 hours of student teaching, said Sigmund Boloz, a senior lecturer at NAU’s College of Education.

The university has a practicum partnership with at least five schools in the Flagstaff Unified School District that allow teacher candidates to observe, serve and teach in the classroom before they start to student teach or earn their degree.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Northern Arizona University student Annie Page works with students in a third-grade classroom at Cromer Elementary School Thursday morning.

The idea is to give future teachers a taste of the classroom before they’re put in charge of one, Boloz said.

But the program has a slightly different and more intense twist at Cromer. Many practicum students at Cromer complete 400 or more hours of practicum at the school. Boloz has had one student who completed more than 600 hours.

“She enjoyed it so much that she volunteered her time,” he said.

Boloz has been working with teacher candidates and administrators at Cromer for the last 16 years. About six years ago, the NAU College of Education made the partnership a formal part of its teacher practicum program.

First-phase practicum students work in the classroom one day a week for an entire semester as a kind of teacher’s aide, he said. They observe the teacher as they work with the students, may help the student with their work and generally help the teacher with minor tasks.

The next semester the same teacher candidates move into the second phase of the practicum program. These teacher candidates get a little more responsibility in the classroom. They spend three full weeks in the classroom with an experienced teacher and may co-teach a lesson with the teacher they are working with.

During their last semester before student teaching, third-phase practicum students have learned most of the material they will need to run a classroom. They spend about four full weeks in a classroom and may create and teach lesson plans by themselves during the school day.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Northern Arizona University student Maddie Fox works sits surrounded by students in a third-grade classroom at Cromer Elementary School Thursday morning.

At Cromer, teacher candidates become an active member of the classroom from the get-go, Boloz said. They’re encouraged to get involved with the students, sit next to them, work directly with them and avoid sitting at the back of the classroom just observing.

“We want them in the classroom for a full day, a full week or several full weeks to experience what it’s like to really teach,” he said. “They (the more advanced practicum students) get to see how a Monday is different from a Tuesday or Thursday in the classroom.”

Practicum students at Cromer are also encouraged to become part of the practicum steering committee at the school, he said. The committee is voluntary and welcomes both experienced professional teachers from the school and the practicum students to gather and discuss what is working and not working with the program. That discussion can include new ways of teaching brought up by the practicum students or the best way to welcome the students to class each morning by experienced teachers. It can also include tips from both sides on ways to improve the learning experience for students, Boloz said.

The idea is to research how to make the practicum program better without interfering with the way that the teachers at the school work or how the school works, Boloz said.

“We’re not here to tell the teachers or the school that you should be doing this or that,” he said. It’s more about learning and building confidence in working in the classroom for practicum students. But it’s also about bringing new ideas in the classroom.

“For us it means lots of people on campus helping the students and helping the teachers,” said Cromer Principal Traci Gordon. “It also means better qualified student teachers.”

A number of the NAU practicum students make their way back to Cromer to student teach or professionally teach, Boloz said. Fifteen of the 20 practicum teachers who studied at Cromer came back this semester to student teach. About 13 teachers who have gone through the practicum program and graduated with a teaching degree from NAU have been hired by Cromer in the last six years, he said.

Molly Bryson, Cromer’s resource teacher, is one of those graduates.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “But none of my classes at NAU could have ever really prepared me for the classroom. (The practicum program) gave me the confidence I needed in the classroom. I felt like I was prepared to enter the classroom and teach when I did my student teaching. I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Kelsey Massey, a third-phase practicum student, said she has learned about the magnitude and variety of classroom opportunities. Massey is working toward a dual certification in elementary education and special education.

“There’s a huge spectrum of kids that I’ll be able to work with here before I do my student teaching,” she said.

Students in the practicum program get experience in the classroom that can’t be taught from a book, Boloz said. They can read about all the safety protocols they need in order to do a field trip but it’s not until you have to actually plan and carry off a field trip that you really experience what that’s like.

“What do you do with the kid with a bloody nose on a field trip when you don’t have a nurse?” he asked.

The purpose behind the program is to make the transformation from college student to student teacher to professional teacher as seamless as possible, Boloz said.

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Parks and rec proposal in limbo after Flagstaff council meeting

The future of a plan to raise the city of Flagstaff's sales tax to purchase and create $58 million worth of open space, parks and recreation facilities is in limbo.

Enough councilmembers chose to put the item on a future city council agenda for discussion, but not enough voted to expedite that discussion in time to place the item on the November 2018 ballot.

Councilmembers Eva Putzova and Jim McCarthy voted in favor of placing the item on an agenda for formal discussion. However, the city’s policy requires four votes to move it to the front of the line for agenda requests.

Without two more votes, the item has been placed in the next available slot on the council’s working calendar for August. But even if the council then decided to place it on a ballot, it would be too late to make it into the November 2018 election, Flagstaff City Clerk Elizabeth Burke said.

“The FOSPR (Flagstaff Open Space, Parks and Recreation) group still has the opportunity to circulate an initiative petition and file it before the first part of July,” Burke said in an email. “Otherwise, the FOSPR petition will be discussed in August 2018 and at that time the council could decide to take no further action, or they could take further action at that time.”

Charles Hammersley, one of the organizers of the campaign, a professor of parks and recreation at Northern Arizona University and a member of the city’s parks and recreation commission, has made it clear the group does not wish to pursue an initiative by collecting signatures and forcing the issue on the ballot.

In an email sent to the group’s supporters Thursday morning, Hammersley called on them to email the mayor and members of the city council asking them to reconsider and vote to hold the discussion in time for the measure to be put on the ballot.

“We were looking for guidance from the city staff on calculating the maintenance costs,” Hammersley said in the email. “We were told by Josh Copley, the ex-city manager, almost a year ago, that city staff could not work with us until the city council accepted the FOSPR petition to put the issue on the November ballot. Then city staff would be able to begin their review. We have always anticipated working with the city parks and recreation and planning staff on reviewing and fine-tuning the FOSPR projects.”

The measure proposes a one-eighth-cent sales tax that would fund the creation of 13 projects that were proposed by various citizen groups and finalized by a steering committee.

In past interviews about the measure, some members of the council expressed hesitance to place it on the ballot for fear it might compete with the city’s transportation tax.

In an interview in October, Councilman Scott Overton said the transportation tax was his first priority, and he was concerned about competing measures.

At the council meeting Tuesday night, several members of the public asked the council to place the measure on the ballot and let voters decide.

“To not allow something to be voted on, just because it distracts from what you want to be voted on, I don’t think that’s very democratic,” said Adam Kaupisch, one of the group’s members who advocated for new tennis facilities as part of the measure.

Putzova said the council should further the will of the citizens who worked on the proposal.

“The citizens came to us and asked us,” she said. “I think we should honor their work.”

Ducey against arming teachers but favors more armed security officers in schools

PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey isn't interested in arming teachers as a way to deal with school violence.

"I want to see our teachers be put in a position where they can teach our kids," the governor said Thursday. "And I think that's what they signed up to do."

The question arose in the wake of last week's mass killing at a Florida high school.

During debate over whether to allow a vote to ban "bump stocks," House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, listed a variety of reasons she believes there are such shootings.

Those include everything from the ease of legal abortion to kids on psychotropic drugs. Townsend said those issues need to be addressed.

"In the meantime, we need to make it so that either the teachers or security guard or police officers, veterans -- however the schools want to do this -- arm those persons so that it is first, a deterrent, and second, to stop before it becomes worse," she argued. "The majority of these mass shootings occur in gun-free zones."

Townsend isn't the first to suggest the idea.

David Stevens, a state representative from Sierra Vista in 2013, proposed legislation to allow a designated school employee to be trained to carry a firearm and possess it on campus. It never became law.

That same year, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the state should consider programs where trained teachers or other school personnel could carry a weapon, or at least would have access to a weapon in a defined emergency.

But Ducey said Thursday he's more interested in solutions where there is "common ground on how to address this issue."

For him, that's dealing with loopholes on background checks and mental health.

And what of weapons on campus?

The governor said that should be the job of school resource officers, "people that are there in charge of security so the teachers can go ahead and teach."

"That's the better solution," Ducey said.

Press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss "absolutely" is willing to put more state funds into helping hire resource officers, trained police assigned to schools.

Scarpinato said Ducey first wants to see what are the needs, noting that some districts already have arrangements with local police departments to put officers in schools. He also said there are some federal funds available to schools.

The governor sidestepped a question of whether he would support legislation that makes certain weapons off limits to those younger than 21.

President Trump on Wednesday said he wants such a restriction for certain weapons, though he provided no details. That drew a quick response from the National Rifle Association, which said it would deny teens the right of self-defense.

"I'm going to focus on background checks and school resource officers," Ducey said.