Editor’s note: This story is one in a series of six looking at how Yuma County school districts performed on the Arizona State Board of Education’s A-F letter grades. This story examines Yuma School District One.

 Each year at the direction of the Arizona Department of Education, the Arizona State Board of Education releases the A-F letter grades of the previous school year.

Released statewide on Nov. 1, the 2018-2019 letter grades are an annual academic achievement profile that measures student academic growth; proficiency in English language arts, math and science, proficiency and academic growth of English Language Learners; for elementary students, indicators of readiness for success in high school; for high school students, indicators of readiness for success in a career or higher education; and high school gradation rates.

In Yuma School District One, 15 of the district’s 17 schools (excluding Dorothy Hall Elementary because of its recent addition to District One) have either maintained or increased a letter grade from the 2017-2018 school year.

Alice Byrne Elementary School was the district’s highest-achieving school, coming through the 2018-2019 school year with an “A.”

“I think it’s a testament to what veteran leadership and veteran teachers can do,” District Superintendent James Sheldahl said. “Year in and year out, they’ve always either been an ‘A’ (school) or just barely missed an ‘A.’ We’re proud of their accomplishment.”

Three of the district’s schools – Castle Dome Middle, R. Peter Woodard Junior High and Fourth Avenue Junior High Schools – received a low grade for the 2018-2019 school year.

“If you look across the state, middle schools represent twice as many Ds and Fs compared to the balance of the K-8 schools,” Sheldahl said.

According to Sheldahl, part of the reason for this “statewide phenomenon” is attributable to teacher shortages – as many teachers go into education to teach on the elementary level or a content area, which usually lands them in high school. Middle schools are more difficult to staff.

“It’s a challenge to attract and retain middle school teachers who…enjoy and embrace that middle level student and have that content area expertise at the same time,” Sheldahl said.

The district has been doing some analysis and recently held a district-wide meeting with District One administration to address the fifth to sixth grade student transition.

“Any time a student transitions to a different setting, there are some challenges that go along with that,” Sheldahl. “We’ve looked at some fifth grade data from last year and some early sixth grade data and started doing some brainstorming on how we can work together across schools to mitigate some of the negative effects of that transition.”

In addition, the district is starting a “culture-building” program in its middle and junior high schools called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts.” To be implemented later this school year, the program aims to foster student-educator relationships.

“The concept is it’s all about relationships,” Sheldahl said. “Kids learn best from adults that they believe care about them and their wellbeing. When you have that relationship, then you can start to raise your expectations for their performance.”

While test scores do represent a significant chunk of K-8 school grades, according to Sheldahl, there are other factors at play as well, such as socioeconomic status and other measurements.

“There’s a lot of data out there that shows there are a lot of factors that influence student achievement and performance on tests like AzMERIT that are outside the school’s control,” Sheldahl said. “And when you talk about preparing kids for college, career and to be a strong community member, there’s a variety of skills that need to be developed that can’t be tested on a test like AzMERIT. We’re committed to continuing to offer broad-based education to our kids.”

According to Sheldahl, the district continues to stand behind its motto as one community collectively in pursuit of excellence.

“We have some areas for growth, but we have strong leadership at our schools and, all in all, our schools are competitive,” Sheldahl said. “We’re committed to preparing kids for the next level, to be strong community members and to have the skills in place so that, whatever path they choose in college or career, they have the foundation to do that.”

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