Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis

Mesa Public Schools Governing Board earlier this month heard Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis explain why the long-awaited update of the MPS core English Language Arts program is on hold.

The education group Expect More Arizona released its latest Education Progress Meter, with results from three of eight metrics used to gauge student progress.

The news was not good for Mesa Public Schools. 

In Mesa, only 48 percent of third graders were proficient or highly proficient at reading. And 45 percent of eighth graders were proficient at math, leaving more than half foundering.

Both were far below the goals of 72 percent of third graders being proficient at reading and 69 percent of eighth graders being proficient at math.

Reading and math data are from 2019, as assessments around the state were suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The MPS graduation rate of 80 percent was also far below the goal of 90 percent.

In neighboring Gilbert, 93 percent graduated from high school, exceeding the goal. At 63 percent for third grade reading proficiency and 59 percent for eighth grade math proficiency, Gilbert’s numbers were higher than Mesa’s, but still below the goals.

Mesa and Gilbert were hardly alone, as third grade literacy was only 46 percent in the state and eighth grade math proficiency was at 41 percent, both far below the goals. Graduation also lagged, at 79 percent.

Mesa’s numbers were slightly higher than the state averages in those three metrics.

And, according to Expect More

Arizona, the picture may be even worse once assessments are given in the next school year.

“The pandemic’s impact on early literacy is not yet known, however, it is anticipated that the state may see a drop in proficiency,” it said. “Arizona must act urgently to ensure that every child receives the support needed to be proficient in reading by the end of third grade.”

The group noted Read On Arizona, the state’s early literacy initiative, calls for hiring more teachers and “deploying literacy coaches and intervention specialists,” among other strategies.

The group is also concerned about pandemic-related “learning loss” in eighth grade math – which it called “an important milestone for student success in graduating from high school and pursuing college or a career.”

Similarly, Expect More Arizona calls for math coaches and intervention specialists for grades K-5, with intensive tutoring.

The group is also concerned about pandemic-related “learning loss” in eighth grade math, “an important milestone for student success in graduating from high school and pursuing college or a career.”

Similarly, Expect More Arizona calls for math coaches and intervention specialists for grades K-5, with intensive tutoring.

MPS Assistant Superintendents Monica Mesa and Randy Mahlerwein said the district is looking into extra coaching and/or intervention.

“We’re discussing our coaching model. We know there is going to be a need for early childhood literacy. But we haven’t nailed down what that’s going to look like,” Mahlerwein said, adding the district is not looking for volume. “You have to add quality coaches.”

Mesa agreed, stating “literacy is always of the utmost importance,” but stressing, “At the elementary program level, if we have interventions or coaches, they definitely have to be high quality.”

Like districts around the country, MPS is trying to decipher the impact of the pandemic on short- and long-term learning.

“I think we can see an initial impact on … opportunities for learning lost,” Mahlerwein said. 

“I think we’ll see post-pandemic results for years to come. We’re at the very beginning of some of the learning opportunities we’ve missed and figuring out how to recreate those.”

Mesa agreed.

“For the younger students, we know there’s been some ups and downs. Some unevenness in some of the skills,” Mesa said.

She added the district is creating procedures for “how we’re going to capture students – catch them where they are and continue to be on track.”

As for graduation rates, according to Expect More Arizona, “Arizona’s ratio of students to counselors must be improved if we want to see more students graduating from high school and pursuing postsecondary education or training.”

Though it remains far below the 90 percent goal, the MPS grad rate is moving in the right direction.

According to Public School Review, the MPS graduation rate has increased from 74 percent over five school years.

The district’s 78 schools have around 62,000 students and 3,200 teachers.

The student:teacher ratio of 20:1 is slightly more than the Arizona public school average of 19:1.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited update of the MPS core English Language Arts program is on hold.

At the April 13 board meeting, Fourlis said the district’s core program is “outdated” and a process to update it began in 2019.

“Our current core adoption is from 2004 and not adequate,” she said.

But, the superintendent added, she was listening to “a tremendous plea for choice” from elementary school staff members and recommended the board “pause” the implementation of a new program.

The board effectively followed her recommendation.

A motion was made to award a $2 million contract to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a seventh and eighth grade English language arts materials and resources – but none of the board members seconded the motion, meaning no changes will be made.

At the same meeting, Fourlis announced the results of a survey, showing 93 percent of families prefer on-campus learning in the 2021-22 school year, with 7 percent wanting online learning.

 MPS plans to continue both classroom and online learning in the fall.

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