Sitting Higher Upon Camelback

As with any good school, it’s all about the students. At Imagine Elementary at Camelback in Phoenix, Marcos, a 7th-grader, says, “Being in this school really helped me out with my future . . . becoming a better student, becoming a better me.”

If you said that Imagine Elementary has made progress because of its School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, you would be right. You’d also be making a major understatement – kind of like saying that Phoenix’s July sunshine is warm. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

In November 2010, Imagine Elementary’s new Principal Freddie Villalon arrived. “When I walked in,” Villalon recalls, “only 10 percent of the kids in the 3rd grade had passed the test in reading. We were identified as a failing school, one of the 15 most challenging schools in Arizona. We were looking at being closed down.”

But fall 2010 was also when SIG money from the U.S. Department of Education arrived through the Arizona Department of Education, which awarded Imagine Elementary at Camelback $2.3 million to turn around over the next three years.

Principal Villalon’s strategy was to add rigor to the curriculum while giving positive reinforcement to teachers and to students. Now half-way through the SIG timeframe, the school has a new academic culture – one of high expectations by school leadership, faculty, support staff, community, parents and, perhaps most of all, by students.

The turnaround gained momentum when Villalon noticed that a 3rd-grade reading teacher, Chandni Varma, raised her class’s performance so that 52 percent of her students met the reading standards. The principal took action. “We asked Mrs. Varma, ‘How did you go from 10 percent to 52 percent?’” Varma described her approach as one that included the art of teaching with the creative application of a commercial reading product. Villalon shared the results with other teachers and highlighted the success, demonstrating that Imagine students are capable of success.

Teachers throughout the school responded to the new culture of rewarding success in the classroom. “We highlighted those teachers that did well, we reinforced them with some bonuses, with some recognition, with some awards,” Villalon said.

Villalon is quick to point out that the success belongs to what he calls “this awesome team,” which includes his students’ parents. One strategy is to send home quarterly assessment results with certificates for students who are meeting or exceeding standards. “In our newsletters,” Villalon said, “we show bar graphs of how we did in the previous year. How we’re doing in comparison to other schools.  Every parent in my school has my personal cell phone number, so they can call me about any issue, any question.”

Angela Denning, deputy associate superintendent for school improvement and intervention for the Arizona Department of Education, worked with Principal Villalon from the start. “Before the SIG monies were awarded, there wasn’t a focus on student learning,” Denning said. “Kids would come in; kids would go out. There wasn’t pride in the school as a whole, and that came out in behaviors and test scores, and dramatic drops in attendance and participation.”

Denning believes the SIG award made the critical difference in the school’s turnaround. “Since the SIG money has been awarded, one of the biggest changes was that the charter holder itself – Imagine – came in and swarmed the school. They started to put in a support system that was absolutely necessary for students to start learning.”

The state department of education has maintained an active role from the start. “We assigned two education specialists to each one of our School Improvement Grant schools, and they came out on a regular basis, giving feedback, monitoring their progress,” Denning said.

Student Christian says that the secret to the school’s success is no secret. “It’s the hard work and dedication that the teachers put into it.”

Perhaps the most heartfelt assessment of the Imagine at Camelback success story came from Denning. “This elementary school cares about children, and they care about student learning,” Denning said. “If I had children, they’d go here.”

Editor’s note: Angela Denning has begun a new assignment as deputy associate superintendent for exceptional student services for the Arizona Department of Education.

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.