Principal Liz Mullavey quietly walks me into Cathy Thompson’s fourth-grade class at Mesa’s Sousa Elementary School. It’s clear every student is engaged. Hands pop up as Thompson leads the 25 students through punctuation exercises. Nothing fancy here — just a screen, a projector and a dry-erase marker.
Before the lesson is over, the students all recite the prepositions, in alphabetical order, from A through F.
There’s learning going on in rooms at Sousa. It’s clear from the reams of data Mullavey collects through various assessments. It’s clear when you walk into Susan Jenni’s sixth-grade room where students use individual whiteboards to calculate decimals into fractions, and back again.
Sousa Elementary School — an east Mesa neighborhood campus that sits on the border with Apache Junction — topped every other school in the Mesa district in points on Arizona’s new A-F accountability system released last week.
This is not a focus school or school of open enrollment. This is a school where 50.4 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of their low economic status. More than 10 percent of the students come from homes where English is not the main language spoken. There’s diversity between the walls as well, with 74 percent of the campus white.
There’s also that word — engagement — that Mullavey strives to drive into every teacher, every parent, every staff member who steps foot on the 23-year-old campus.
It’s her fifth year at the school, having arrived a few years ago from another Mesa elementary campus. Since then, Mullavey has put in place a tutoring lab, a reading lab and an assessment lab that measures how students might perform on state tests before they take them.
Mullavey doesn’t want to let one student slip by, nor one piece of information that might be helpful. Besides asking all of her teachers to choose a handful of “focus kids” who need more attention each year, staff members are asked to “adopt” a student who may need more encouragement.
Parents are on the campus daily, she said. A school family support specialist has been in place for three years. If students can’t stay after school for tutoring, school-day tutoring is arranged.
The end result is that in the spring — when students took the AIMS tests that determined the school grades revealed last week — 66 percent of the fourth-graders and 53 percent of the sixth-graders exceeded in math.
The school took that engagement one step further this year. Becky Weber, the family support specialist, came up with a slogan for parents and staff: T.E.A.M. (Together Educating Always Motivating). Shirts were printed up and each Friday — and during every schoolwide event — staff and parents wear them.
“I can’t do this by myself. Teachers can’t do it by themselves. We all have to be engaged,” Mullavey said of her approach to education.
Last year, before the AIMS test, Mullavey sent letters home to parents of students who had not passed the pre-test, asking them to help their students or set up meetings with teachers.
“It’s a matter of everyone from the top down or bottom up being engaged and committed to our goals,” she said.
She also meets with teachers of each grade level once a month to talk about students. Teachers are encouraged to get creative and focus on their strengths, sometimes swapping lesson duties.
Not a minute is wasted. Even as kindergartners walk from the classroom to the cafeteria, they can be heard reciting the alphabet or trying to determine what word their teacher is spelling out loud.
“Even if we’re having fun, we tie academics to it,” Mullavey said. “It’s constant. No matter where they are or what they’re doing, they’re using their time to the best academically.”
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Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune