After seven months on the job, Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Mike Penca said Flagstaff is feeling more and more like home.
“We traveled back to Iowa for the holidays with family, but when we came back to Flagstaff, it truly felt like we had come home,” he said.
His wife, a teacher, has a job with the district, his daughter is attending Northern Arizona University and his son has found a local job, Penca said.
“I love that I’ve had the opportunities we have here and the opportunities to work with the community,” Penca said. “I’m in awe of the support that we get as a district from the community. This community gets it. They know we’re preparing not only our children for the future but our future leaders. You can walk into any classroom, at any school, on any day and find an artist or scientist or someone else from the community who is willing to share their talent with our students.”
Penca spent 20 years in an Iowa school district less than half the size of FUSD, working his way from a teacher up the administrative ladder eventually to interim superintendent. He was not chosen by the board for the permanent job, despite positive reviews from teachers, staff and parents.
Penca said staff, faculty and the FUSD Governing Board have all helped in his transition to his new position. He plans to continue his regular visits to all of the schools in the district and his discussions with principals, staff, teachers and parents about the district’s needs.
“There’s going to be challenges,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve been surprised by any yet, but things have happened that have kept me on my toes.”
He said the district is keeping an eye on funding and new bills in the Arizona Legislature this session. Including a bill from Senator Sylvia Allen which would change the letter grade structure that the state uses to grade schools and districts. The proposed change would include a dashboard where parents could drill down into the specific items that schools are graded on and see where a school is excelling or might need improvement.
Penca said he wouldn’t mind such a dashboard. A simple letter grade doesn’t give him enough information on how a school or district is doing, he said. A dashboard with details would make it easier for parents, teachers, principals and administration to determine areas of improvement and note growth in a school from the previous year.
The district is also watching Gov. Doug Ducey’s office to see if the new state budget will include his promised additional funding for education.
“I believe there is a movement in Arizona that we can do better and should do better at funding schools and our students,” Penca said.
However, it will be a long time before the state will return education funding to the levels it was before the recession. District will need community support during that time, he said.
The district is in the process of evaluating its funding needs and researching the idea of a possible bond or override issue for November’s ballot. The governing board has not made a decision yet on the matter.
Penca said the district is also working on tightening its policies, values and mission statement. Each school has its own specialty, Penca said, and he wants to keep those distinct cultures intact at each school. But he also wants to make sure that students at one school are getting the same core education as students at another school.
“I want to create a balance between the identity of the schools and the equality of instruction between the schools,” he said.
He wants to open the lines of communication between schools so that there is more sharing of ideas and tips between teachers, principals and the administration. He doesn’t see major changes in the future because of this but small everyday improvements that come from everyday discussions.
He also wants to have all of the district’s schools accredited by AdvancED, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that reviews educational institutions. According to its website, AdvancED reviews and accredits more than 34,000 education institutions with more than 4 million educators serving more than 20 million students in the U.S. and 70 other nations. The organization focuses on continuous improvement in schools rather than just meeting the state minimums.
Penca hopes that the accreditation and the continuous improvement process touted by AdvancEd will help identify areas of success and improvement in each school and bring in more feedback from the community, teachers, staff and administration.
He also hopes to bring the ACES trauma training for educators. The program trains teachers on how to help students who have dealt with disruptive situations in their lives.
On the recent report on the condition of the district’s school buildings, Penca said he was pleased to find out how well the schools have been maintained over the years. The possible replacement of Kinsey Elementary School on Lonetree Road will need more thought, though, he said. If the district replaces the school, it may have to move it to a new location. There is the possibility that the road may be widened, which would take away some of the buildable area on the site, which backs up to property owned by NAU. A location that would better serve the community, especially the growth on the west side of Flagstaff, might be something the district would consider.
Penca is also working with a parenting advising committee on possible improvements to district schools. He’s also currently working his way through meeting each of the schools’ parent-teacher organizations. He plans to hold a town hall meeting at the end of February with the public, parents, students and teachers.
He’s received a number of requests from parents for a gifted student education program. The schools do have such programs, but Penca hopes to do more advertising of the programs in the future.