Mesa schools chief upbeat about first year in job Ember Conley

Superintendent Ember Conley

Rounding out her first year as superintendent for the state’s largest school district, Ember Conley says Mesa Public Schools (MPS) is expecting some exciting new changes in the near future.

From the time that she began her new position last August, Conley said MPS has addressed improvements in social emotional learning, mental health, infrastructure, school safety and special education.  

“I have learned a ton and still have so much more to learn,” said Conley. “Mesa has a tremendous pride in its district for the excellence we provide for education — to be a part of that spirit and tradition is something that I’ve really been humbled by.”

A major win for the district this past school year was the securing of the 2018 November bond, which passed with less than 1,000 votes to spare, Conley said.

The $300 million bond will be used to integrate technology into classrooms, provide safer campuses, replace aging buses and repair facilities.

“The bond itself has been put into a couple of different buckets,” said Conley.

In a slideshow presentation published on the district’s website, the three main focal points for the new bond include:

$167 million for campus facility improvements, such as security upgrades, new facility construction, improved athletic and arts facilities, playgrounds, portable replacement and improved energy efficiency

$87 million for technology updates

$46 million for transportation, such as improving aging school buses, including implementing air conditioning

Another highlight for Conley has been the district’s uptick in mental health efforts, she said, which have doubled down in response to the suicides of 35 teens in Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek in the last 22 months.

In February, the Mesa Public Schools District Governing Board unanimously passed a resolution that calls students’ mental health “a major component of school safety.”

The district also added 35 new elementary school counselors and joined the East Valley Prevention Coalition, which includes all school districts in the region.

The coalition meets monthly to trade resources surrounding mental health and discuss where improvements can be made.

“I think we have to continue to talk about mental health and its many facets — from addiction, to suicide, to depression,” said Conley. “And being able to be a catalyst for change in that area is something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Conley told the East Valley Tribune that she is most proud of the work her district is doing for early education and preschoolers.

MPS is implementing the 50/50 model for its preschoolers, which integrates special education students into the regular classroom.

“I want us to be a model for the entire state,” the superintendent said. “When you look at the pure return on investment for every dollar spent on early learning, it returns about $9.”

“Our challenge has been the increase in special education students and looking at the cost to educate them later on in their education journey,” she continued. “Preschool really helps rewire and prevent many of the things we’re seeing with our special needs students later on.”

So far, eight Mesa schools have implemented the new model — including  Eisenhower Center for Innovation and Adams, Michael T. Hughes, Lincoln, Longfellow, Sandra Day O’Connor, Taft, and Whitman elementary schools. And 60 special education students have moved from the Jordan Center for Early Education to their neighborhood schools.

Now, the district is working to secure a 15 percent budget override victory in an election in November.

Although MPS has been operating under a 10 percent override since 1995, it needs an additional 5 percent to stay afloat, explained Conley.

The district’s biggest challenge has been meeting the requirement of the 2016 voter-approved minimum wage referendum — the current override only covers 8.7 percent of the district’s employees.

On top of tackling the wage increase, the district hopes to funnel more money to increased school security staffing, attracting and retaining quality teachers and preventing increases in class sizes.

If the override is approved, Mesa homeowners can expect to pay a total of $14.76 per month per $100,000 of assessed valuation.

Funding initiatives aside, Conley said she feels optimistic about the future of her district and is looking forward to continue leading in her new role.

“I think we have such an amazing opportunity to really continue to make this district great,” she said. “Being able to embrace the rich culture and mosaic of children and families represented in Mesa while continuing that legacy and strong tradition of excellence is something I’m excited about.”

The district is also in the process of outlining an upcoming strategic development plan — a five-year plan to cultivate top-performing graduates.

MPS conducted a needs assessment earlier this year to get a bearing on its current state of the union.

The assessment produced a total of eight findings, including data that shows teachers are struggling to implement newer technology into their classrooms, progress in addressing the social-emotional well-being of students and lack of  student engagement in class.

The district is now surveying members of the community to get a better grip on how taxpayers and students view MPS and where improvements can be made.

During a recent board meeting, Conley said the district expects to have  the student-centered plan done by July.

“I really have this large lens of taking all of the data and asking, ‘how does it relate to that graduate that we are preparing?’” she stated. “This will lead the district through the next five years and this will guide you and your work that you do each and every day around the policies and budget.”  

The plan is expected to roll out in August.

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