Change is in the air for public schools across Arizona.
Flagstaff Unified School District, from top to bottom, is taking it in calm, prepared stride.
The stakes are high: For example, third-graders face consequences if they can't read at a minimal level. Teachers will be evaluated (and perhaps paid or saved from layoff) on a new, holistic set of measures.
Between next year and 2015, a variety of reforms will take effect, and rather than wait, FUSD is preparing now.
-- Reading proficiency: In 2014, children must at least be approaching grade-level proficiency in reading by the end of third grade. If they are below this standard, as roughly five percent currently are, they will be held back.
-- School letter grades: The Arizona Department of Education has already introduced schools to the A-F letter-grade concept, although it won't take effect until 2013. The letter grades replace the word labels (excelling, highly performing, performing plus, performing and underperforming) that have been in place for several years, and they aren't a direct match.
-- Teacher evaluations: The new evaluation system, set to go into place in 2013, ties test scores and classroom observations to teacher pay and retention. This will take some of the emphasis off seniority when deciding which teachers to keep and at what salary. Principals face similar evaluations.
-- Common Core curriculum: Arizona signed onto this in 2010 and expects to have nationally calibrated standards in math and language arts in 2015.
Following are where the reforms will happen, through the people who will live them:
THOMAS FIRST-GRADERS: YOUNG READERS ENGAGE WITH IPADS
A banner with cartoons of happy-faced books smiles down on Ellen Hayes' first-graders. The poster's message: "Reading is succeeding."
First grade is when the light bulbs should really begin flashing inside the heads of children. This is when they begin learning, in earnest, how to read.
By the end of third grade, they should have advanced from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" -- and if they can't, they face being held back.
As of 2014, schools will have to retain most third-graders who score in the lowest category on the state standardized reading test. In FUSD, that would have affected about 5 percent of all third-graders, or close to 50 out of 775, last year.
At Thomas Elementary, where Hayes teaches, the challenges are greater. In 2011, nearly one in 10 third-graders scored in the lowest category, "falls far below," on the AIMS reading test.
Today's first-graders will be the first who are subject to the high-stakes reading standard. To bolster children who are at risk of performing poorly, Hayes brings out the iPads.
One exercise has children working in pairs, with one reading aloud while the iPad records his voice and his partner listens along. Then they play back the recording and listen for fluency -- how smooth the student sounds. Does he make mistakes? Does he sound hesitant and choppy, "like a robot?"
It appears that the slick handheld computers are working exceptionally well.
When Thomas first rolled out iPads to a group of its struggling first-grade readers this year, six out of 16 students were promoted to a higher reading group after just six weeks -- "which is exactly what we wanted," Hayes says.
Previously, that kind of advancement usually took twice or three times as long.
In these sessions, Hayes finds the students completely engaged. When they're engaged, learning is exciting for them. When they're engaged they want more.
Apps give instant feedback, chiming and flashing like a video game when the children submit their answers. The iPad is rewarding, and the children want more rewards.
"That struggling student a lot of times doesn't feel a lot of reward," she says.
Reading scores vary widely across FUSD's 10 elementary schools. At Killip Elementary, which has a high proportion of low-income and English language-learner students, that correlates to 12 percent of third-graders falling far below grade level in reading. At Sechrist Elementary, where the typical family income is significantly higher and far fewer children are working toward English proficiency, only 1 percent scored so low.
Thomas was the first school to put iPads into the hands of its youngest readers. It won't be the last. FUSD recently announced that starting next year, all first, second and third graders will practice reading skills on iPads. The district will buy about 550 iPads with more than a half-million dollars between federal and tax override funding, targeting the state's third-grade reading mandate.
In Ellen Hayes' room, complying with the state requirement can look like a game -- a game like "Word Zombies," an app that encourages the children to practice the middle sounds on longer words.
"I promise today is a Word Zombies day," Hayes calls out to her charges.
A little voice squeals approval: "Yesss!"
Hillary Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2261.