More than half the excelling schools in Arizona belong to the East Valley, according to state Department of Education rankings released Friday.
The Kyrene Elementary and Scottsdale Unified school districts alone accounted for about 23 percent of the state’s excelling schools.
Overall, 70 of 173 East Valley district and charter schools received the state’s highest label under the Arizona Learns school accountability program, while only 63 of 1,017 schools elsewhere in the state received the highest rating. The labels are based on test scores and dropout, graduation and attendance rates at each school.
No East Valley school received a failing label, and only Desert Eagle Secondary Charter School in Scottsdale received an underperforming label.
"We’re just very proud of our schools and students, and the teachers who engage parents," Kyrene spokesman Johnny Cruz said. "The key factor is the fact our teachers are so experienced, and our parents are engaged."
Socioeconomics also seemed to play a role in the state labels. Across the East Valley, schools in upscale neighborhoods such as north Scottsdale, Ahwatukee Foothills, east Gilbert and east Mesa tended to outperform schools in low-income areas, such as the core areas of Tempe and Mesa.
Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said state officials try to balance out the advantages students from more affluent families have by giving schools credit for the progress they make instead of just looking at high test scores.
"I believe that eliminated a lot of the injustices at schools that otherwise would be ‘underperforming,’ " he said.
Arredondo and Evans elementary schools in the Tempe Elementary School District, the only underperforming East Valley schools last year, both climbed one notch to "performing" this year and avoided the threat of a "failing" label — which schools receive if they underperform three years in a row.
Debra Gomez, interim superintendent of the Tempe Elementary School District, said an intense effort led to the improvement. Many schools, including Evans, received some of the first federal grants to fund a new program called Reading First that helps teachers tailor their reading instruction to the needs of individual students.
Desert Shadows Middle School in the Apache Junction Unified School District also continued its upward climb. The school, which got hit with an underperforming label in 2002, earned a performing mark last year and now boasts a "highly performing" label.
"They put together an improvement plan, and they stuck to the plan," district spokeswoman Carol Shepherd said.
Among other things, she said, teachers at Desert Shadows started donating their time outside normal school hours to tutor students who needed extra help. The effort earned the staff a 2002 Golden Bell award from the Arizona School Boards Association.
Statewide, only 13 schools received the failing mark. The low number was a sharp turnaround from 2003, when 81 schools received their second consecutive underperforming label.
The state calculates its Arizona Learns labels using a formula that considers yearly progress and overall scores on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test and the Stanford 9 Achievement Test.
State labels are independent of the Adequate Yearly Progress labels the state released last month under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.