By Linda Kor–
“The goal of this district is to develop the best system for every child. It’s a big concept given the diversity of our students,” stated Holbrook School District Superintendent Dr. Robbie Koerperich in a recent interview regarding the district’s objectives for the upcoming school year.
The goal is a lofty one for a district that serves students from Holbrook all the way into the Navajo Nation. Each teacher and administrator takes into consideration not only the students’ academic needs, but also their cultural and economic environment in order to promote success.
The challenge has increased this year with the change in K-12 academic standards to the state-led Common Core Standards Initiative.
Overall, this initiative promotes a new, more rigorous approach to education for kindergarten through 12th grade. While not a nationalized curriculum, these standards have been approved by 47 of the 50 states to add uniformity to the nation’s schools.
“Essentially, the timeline for learning will be accelerated. Kindergartners will be expected to be better readers and already know the alphabet when they begin school, and students will be expected to accelerate their core studies,” explained Koerperich.
Full implementation of Arizona Mathematics and English Language Arts Standards began this year at the kindergarten level and will move into first grade next year. Full implementation of the standards for all grades will begin in 2013-14.
With this curriculum, all grades will see a more rigorous curriculum, with the high school students expected to pass tough new exams and earn passing grades in certain core courses that would allow them to graduate as early as the end of their sophomore year with a special diploma.
This diploma, called the “Grand Canyon Diploma,” would allow students to avoid the requirement to pass the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) exam. With this achievement they could then enter the workforce, a community college or a vocational school. The diploma would not prepare students to enter competitive four-year universities.
This accelerated approach to education is not a solution that Koerperich believes will benefit HUSD’s diverse student body. “This really doesn’t fit our program. It’s a cheaper system because the state won’t have to fund the junior and senior years. But while students may be academically able to meet that goal, they may not be socially ready yet,” he explained.
He noted that the district encompasses more than 1,500 square miles of Navajo County, the largest district in terms of square miles in the state. Within that area is a great deal of economic, social and cultural diversity uncommon to other districts. “We have such a diverse population and have to serve the needs of each individual student. We already provide college readiness and CTE (Career and Technical Education), but rural is very different, more traditional than the urban areas, and one solution doesn’t suit all outcomes,” stated Koerperich.
Teachers also face a tougher evaluation system with a new state mandate that requires that 30 to 50 percent of their success be predicated on student achievement. Many of the district’s students live below the poverty level, some even without running water or electricity, while others have little or no parental involvement. Those are just some of the factors that can affect grades for which teachers may not be able to compensate.
“There’s no blanket statement in education and the dynamics are always a challenge. Our focus now is on technical integration for students with the use of iPads and Kindles on a trial basis. We’re trying to keep students up to date on the technology skills needed for success,” Koerperich said.
Another ongoing concern at the schools is the lack of parental involvement in the students’ academics. “They (parents) need to understand the value and impact of education; that it’s a lifeline to a successful career. An ongoing education for students has a definitive impact on their long-term success,” he explained.
According to Koerperich the average annual salary for an individual without a diploma is approximately $19,000; with a diploma, $22,000 to $24,000; with a college degree, $35,000 to $40,000; and with a master’s degree or doctorate, it goes up significantly from there.
“It’s important to set goals in life and parents play a key role in that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be college, but to be a productive citizen. We believe we have a system in place to accomplish that, but parents need to be involved. High school is not a means of an outcome, it’s a benchmark. Students need to go from here into the trades, college or learn skills for the job market,” he said.
According to Koerperich, though, there’s also the “happiness factor.”’ “Life in America is not going to get easier. Education success is key to happiness in post-high school life,” he said.
With the district feeling the impact of state cuts to the budget, administrators are continually trying to make the best use of taxpayers’ money by utilizing more grant funds, offering tutoring to struggling students and offering programs such as Project SOAR, a grant funded program that provides after school computer and technology training for students and adults alike.
With industries such as potash mining and wind farming on the area’s horizon, the district is also planning for possible growth.
“Right now we’re conducting a feasibility study on what (growth) we’re able to handle. With facilities we feel OK; I feel it would be misguided to plan for additional construction. Our objectives at this time are to be great partners for families and businesses in the area. The school district needs to be part of the solution for growth. We need to be a hub for the community,” he said.
Overall, Koerperich feels the district is doing its best to serve the needs of its diverse population by helping its unique students develop their potential. Teachers and administrators plan to keep that in the forefront as they adjust to changes to educational requirements, possible growth and advancing technology.