Gilbert’s Highland High School will be honored today in a new state program as one of Arizona’s best schools and a role model for other schools.
AZ LEADS, a statewide coalition of education groups, universities and business leaders led by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, was established to identify and foster the best practices in the state’s public schools.
Highland, Horne said, was selected as the first model school because it exemplifies how "outstanding leadership leads to outstanding academic achievement."
Principal Ken James and his staff learned about the honor earlier this week.
Students will hear the news this morning during a special ceremony at the school.
"The kids are the reason we’re getting this award," James said. "It’s their success."
Highland was chosen from the 128 Arizona schools that received the top academic label — "excelling" — last fall in the state’s school accountability system.
"We went through a screening process," Horne said. "It was like choosing
stocks in the stock market. We started with 128, and then 20, and then one."
Highland rose to the top because it had:
• High percentages of students meeting or exceeding standards on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards — 79 percent in math, 91 percent in reading and 96 percent in writing.
• Continuous improvement in academic achievement.
• Four national boardcertified teachers — with another four who just completed the national certification process and are awaiting the results. Four or five more Highland teachers will apply next year.
• The Arizona Secondary Principal of the Year in 2002-03.
"I’ve been saying for four or six years that I consider us to be one of the premier schools in the state," James said. "I can say it and back it up with facts."
James is unapologetically confident — and competitive.
"I want our school to be the best at everything. When test scores come out, the first thing I look for is ‘Did we beat Mountain View (High School in Mesa)?’ I know that means we’ll be near the top," he said. "Now everyone is going to be looking to see if they did better than us."
And he doesn’t flinch when asked about the recent suspensions of 29 Highland and Gilbert high school students on charges of possession, distribution and use of the prescription drug Soma.
"There are drugs at every high school — but we do a good job of catching them," James said. "It shows we’re finding it and we’re doing something about it."
When James interviews teaching applicants, he asks them to list the characteristics of a high-quality teacher.
"If they don’t say in there somewhere that they have to care about kids, then they’re not my first choice," he said.
Teachers such as Jerre Boba do care — but no student should mistake caring for leniency. Boba and her colleagues in the math department expect high test scores.
"I hope my students will remember that I was tough and that I taught them what they needed to know," she said.
Highland is fortunate, James said, because the students come to the school from families that already have high standards and expectations.
Gilbert Superintendent Brad Barrett agreed, but pointed out that James doesn’t settle for the status quo.
"That school could be moderately successful very easily," Barrett said. "But he takes it to higher levels."
Sophomore Jimmy Kim, 16, said Highland is a good school — but he wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to all of his friends.
"If you come here," he said, "you should be prepared to work hard."