It’s been an unprecedented start to the school year for Maricopa Unified School District’s nine principals, including three new to the job.
In a great sense, all were newbies to the world of virtually supporting students and teachers, controlling online education processes and, as Santa Rosa Principal Eva Safranek called it, “netiquette.” The launch of the new year was not perfect, with technical glitches, parents complaining about log-in issues and students late to pick up devices, but MUSD principals painted an overall positive picture.
At every campus, teachers had to work up a new process to prepare for the COVID-19 world, and principals worked all channels of communication. Ahead of the district’s transition to in-person instruction, families were asked to choose between online or brick-and-mortar classrooms for their children to continue the year.
“This is a new experience for all of us, and especially for the students and their families,” said Pima Butte Elementary’s new principal, Elizabeth Allison.
Desert Wind Middle School
“It’s comical how much it’s changed every single day,” Principal Carlos Alvarado said of enrollment a week into the start of online instruction, a rollercoaster for most schools navigating a return to instruction.
Some of that is typical of any start of school, but families were looking for the academic programming that best fit their needs during COVID-19.
The distribution of laptops went “extremely smoothly,” according to the principal, though it took a lot of effort for staff to locate some families that had not picked up devices well after instruction had begun.
In the fluid enrollment situation, DWMS has had about 800 students. Keeping them healthy has been worked into this year’s campus theme: “Tigers are respectful. Tigers are responsible. Tigers are safe.”
Teachers had options to teach their remote classes from home or from their classroom. All staff meetings were conducted through Google Hangouts. Alvarado said everyone had to be “really on point” in reading their emails for communication to be effective.
“As with any administrator, you can’t lead from your office. You have to be in among the people,” said Alvarado, who is in his second year as principal.
DWMS has seven new teachers, and Aidan Balt is the new assistant principal, coming over from Maricopa High School. It is running on a block schedule, which will continue when children return to the building.
Alvarado said teacher evaluation will continue as scheduled but on a virtual basis.
Maricopa Wells Middle School
“It is certainly different without students on campus. I do miss that!” said Maricopa Wells Middle School Principal Thad Miller. “I love being here every day and serving all of our students. However, I have been able to attend many of the Google Classrooms and have observed students collaborating with each other and their teacher.”
Again, there are more than 900 Panther students at MWMS and more than 45 teachers. As at DWMS, the regular morning intercom announcements were replaced with other communications between administration and staff and students.
“I create video morning announcements that the teachers show in our homeroom class period every morning, and we consistently review expectations and share important events that students need to be aware of,” said Miller, who has been principal since 2017. “We also utilize our parent-notification system, ConnectEd, to share weekly messages with parents and various stakeholders in a timely manner.”
He gave a virtual tour of the campus on YouTube for all newcomers at the middle school. He also reminded parents that students needed to “dress appropriately” for class during distance learning.
“It is very rewarding to see all kids participating and eager to learn, regardless of the method of instructional delivery,” said Miller, a Maricopan since 1973.
A former coach, he noted the long wait for high school and middle school athletic programs as Arizona Interscholastic Association worked through a staggered approach to getting kids back into competition. He said he’s a supporter of athletics, and other clubs, as long as it’s safe.
The school’s mission statement is to “Prepare our students for success at the high school level … and beyond.” Miller said students had been consistent in their online attendance to start the year.
Butterfield Elementary School
Principal Janel Hildick said her school was off to a good start.
“Our teachers are so creative, and they are committed to ensuring students have the best experience possible,” she said.
When issues arise in the learning platform or attendance log-in, she said staff is trying to provide the necessary support.
“Teachers are delivering dynamic, grade-level content and differentiated instruction, and students are doing well navigating the new online/distance platform,” said Hildick, principal at Butterfield since 2011.
The school has achieved A status from the state and currently has a high B. Hildick is working with 38 teachers trying to keep families and staff on the same page as the school navigates a difficult time. An important part of that was setting expectations.
“Teachers shared our expectations with the students and parents during parent-teacher conferences, and communication was sent home each week to families from myself and from the teachers,” Hildick said. “Students are learning new online etiquette, and teachers are continuing to reinforce procedures and routines just as they would in a typical classroom environment.”
Maricopa Elementary School
Jennifer Robinson, Ed.D., has been principal at MES since 2012. She led the campus to Lighthouse status, part of the “Leader in Me” program. For the new school year, flexibility is the name of the game while maintaining the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework.
“Our teachers spent the first few days establishing high expectations for online learning and communicating them regularly with scholars and families,” Robinson said. “We are keeping routines and expectations as normal as possible using our PBIS expectations: Be respectful, be responsible, be safe and be aware.”
The beginning of the school year, with teachers and children at last connecting and children able to see their friends, was “exciting,” she said.
As part of “Leader in Me,” the staff introduced its “8 Habits of Leaders” program for the year and focused on a habit a week. Those habits include imperatives like “Be proactive,” “Think win-win,” “Synergize” and “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.”
Pima Butte Elementary School
Elizabeth Allison was the teacher on special assignment for Pima Butte before being named the principal this year after the departure of Randy Lazar. She has taken over what is currently the only A-rated school in the city.
She said the launch of distance learning seemed to go well overall.
“As with anything new, we have experienced hiccups along the way,” Allison said. “However, with the support of technology and a community dedicated to supporting our students’ success, we have continued to persevere and work through the challenges as they present themselves.”
With Allison moving up, Earshline Young is now the teacher on special assignment for both Pima Butte and Santa Rosa elementary schools.
Also new to the campus is the City of Maricopa’s Afterschool Connect, a free program sponsored by Global Water Resources. It offers resources and internet access for students and their parents (who must attend with their child) to help navigate their online learning programs.
With all the vagaries that could result from remote learning, Allison said it was important to convey expectations early.
“We know that instruction is best taught when the environmental expectations are clear,” she said. “It’s for this reason that our teachers spent the first few days establishing these expectations for online learning and communicating them regularly with students and families.”
Saddleback Elementary School
Marchelle Hasan, Ed.D., is in her second year as principal of Saddleback, with June Shull as teacher on special assignment. She said the teaching staff has “embraced this new way of learning” to start the year.
Saddleback was a comeback kid last year, rising to a solid B rating from a C. Academic growth remains an expectation, it was conveyed to families during a virtual Meet the Teacher Night.
This year’s “3 B’s” motto was created by teachers to that end. Similar to Desert Wind, it stands for “Be respectful. Be responsible. Be safe” and is part of the PBIS.
“These rules outline appropriate behaviors for students to be mindful of,” Hasan said. “Expectations are also reviewed daily.”
The principal’s daily duties have necessarily changed until instruction can transition back to the classroom. She said while she can’t visit classrooms in person, she has live sessions to talk with teachers and students.
“It’s important to keep routines for staff and students,” she said. “Although we are not in a brick-and-mortar setting, teachers have a consistent daily schedule for students and families to follow.”
Santa Cruz Elementary
The SCES campus in Tortosa has a new principal after Loraine Conley was moved to the district office as the director of assessment and data. Stephanie Rhinehart took over after serving as the Saddleback and Santa Rosa teacher on special assignment and the district’s professional development coach.
Saddleback’s TOSA is Marcus Mitchell.
To prepare for the year, Rhinehart said she shared a student-friendly Google Meets Expectation Matrix with teachers to review with their students to outline expectations for online etiquette.
“In addition to reviewing these common expectations, teachers are practicing the tools such as when to use the ‘chat’ feature or the ‘raise your hand’ tools,” she said. “They are also communicating our online practices with parents as well so they can help guide at home.”
As online instruction got underway, teachers helped students get more and more comfortable with the platform.
“Teachers have done an amazing job learning the new technology, helping troubleshoot difficulties logging in, and creating a positive experience for our families,” Rhinehart said.
The Coyotes have adopted a HOWL theme – Honesty, Optimism, Wisdom and Leadership. The campus is the host site for the new Boys & Girls Club.
Santa Rosa Elementary School
Eva Safranek is MUSD’s longest-serving principal, becoming the Scorpions’ campus administrator in 2010. But the start of the new school year was novel for her.
She said that during a typical brick-and-mortar opening of school, teachers would start out teaching classroom expectations and etiquette. This year, they did the same, with a difference. They used the first few days of instruction teaching netiquette and distance-learning expectations in an effort to limit inevitable confusion.
“Expectations and procedures are taught and practiced, and then practiced some more to ensure a smooth class routine,” Safranek said.
The district plans for those smoothly operating virtual classes to be able to transition to a smoothly operating physical classroom once the time comes. The process encourages students, at least in upper grades, to learn time management, which may positively impact that transition.
SRES staff worked to get the students comfortable with the Florida Virtual platform before “gradually releasing responsibility to the older students to work independently on assignment,” she said.
“We appreciate the support from our families in helping students at home with navigating platforms and monitoring schoolwork,” Safranek said. “This is definitely a team effort, and everyone deserves to be complimented.”
This story appears in the September issue of InMaricopa magazine.