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back to school

As discussed last week, Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board plans to meet in special session Monday at 6:30 p.m. to discuss changing the date of the first day of school.

Opening day is scheduled for July 23. The district is currently using a modified schedule that includes two-week breaks for fall, winter and spring.

This week’s agenda states delaying the start of the school year is recommended “due to the unpredictability of the data associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Arizona has drawn national attention as a hot zone for the coronavirus.

During the June 24 meeting, Bernadette Russoniello, a counselor at the high school who is also a mother of students and a spouse of a teacher, asked the board to consider delaying the school year or opening fully online. She said she is “terrified” of returning to campus under current conditions.

To accommodate all students and alleviate health fears, the district has put together a plan that would provide education models to be in place for the first semester. Those include the traditional on-campus, brick-and-mortar instruction model that would engage a litany of health protocols, a fully online, real-time instruction model and a hybrid model that would have students on campus part of the time and online part-time.

For the moment, only the fully on campus and the fully online models are completely developed. It is doubted the hybrid model would be set by July 23.

Sue Swano, president of the Maricopa Education Association, said the organization took issue with some of the stipulations entailed in the brick-and-mortar model. She wrote to the board, stating staff and students should be able to move around throughout the day rather than be confined to one classroom.

“MEA fully understands that it is easier to trace contact from person to person if someone tests positive for COVID-19 , but we also know for mental health reasons, it is not best practice to be contained in the classroom for seven to eight hours a day.”

While nursing professionals at the district have asked that students wear face masks on buses and when entering campus, wearing face masks all day is not feasible. As planned, elementary students and their teachers would stay within their cohorts in the classroom, where they would not have to wear a mask, and outside for recess. MEA, on the other hands, suggests wearing masks or face shields in class.

The discussion and decision about delaying the start of the school year is the only action item on Monday’s agenda.

Tonight, Maricopa Unified School District will present the first draft of its “Welcome Back” plan as it prepares to start classes July 23 in the wake of COVID-19. Tomorrow, everyone can begin choosing their preferred option as the district touts its flexibility.

MUSD received survey responses from 3,073 parents and 636 staff regarding their preferences and concerns.

That survey showed 45% of parents wanted a brick-and-mortar setting for classes, while 44% of teachers preferred a hybrid of onsite and online learning. The opinions of parents and teachers were mostly in line on questions of face mask use and daily temperature checks.

The framework for returning will be published on the district website Thursday. It includes a caveat: “Plans for a hybrid model that integrates in-person and remote learning are in development and highly dependent on several external factors.  Therefore, we cannot commit to launching this model on the first day of school.”

Families will have the option of choosing to go to school in person on campus or attending class via the newly established Virtual Academy. All students will receive a personal, dedicated device.

Health Services has had video meetings with custodial staff to go through the cleaning and disinfecting process. Because social distancing is not considered feasible on a school bus, school nurses are encouraging masks on the bus or from their drop-off point onto school grounds. If parents want their children to wear a mask in more settings, that can be accomplished up to a point.

“Children should not sit in a mask all day long in a room,” District Nurse Lizabeth Stephens, R.N., said.

Meetings between Health Services and the principals were organized to get everyone’s ideas about how to put best health advice into practice. The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s COVID-19 guidelines are also a point of conversation.

Though meals, art and music may be in the classroom for elementary students, the daily schedule will be regular. The district is also expecting afterschool programs like 21st Century and the new Boys & Girls Club to operate in their designated locations.

“We are preparing to be there when school starts,” said Matthew Lemberg, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Casa Grande Valley, which is launching its Maricopa club this year.

The middle schools and high school will have “virtual clubs” available.

The online learning platforms will have “daily synchronous instruction” such as ZOOM or Google Meets. It is expected to be more direct learning experience than the distance learning of last quarter.

Starting tomorrow, families can choose their option at www.musd20.org/musdsafe.

Learn more about the district’s physical and mental health preparation in the July issue of InMaricopa magazine.

Logan Harper introduces himself to parents and students as the new band teacher at Desert Wind Middle School. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Most schools in Maricopa start the New Year this week and prepared for opening day with Meet the Teacher nights. Maricopa Unified School District hosted a welcome-back gathering for certified and classified employees. Classes will be under way Monday. Watch for buses on the streets and children on foot near school zones.

Photos by Michelle Chance

Breakfast treats and coffee, donated by Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, greeted Maricopa High School teachers as they returned to campus July 17. New Principal Brian Winter took to the lecture hall stage early Tuesday morning to discuss school goals, including improving the culture and perception of MHS. Administration and staff are beginning a new school-year calendar, with the first day of school beginning for students July 23.

District and charter schools return to class

Brody and Madden Rastad are ready to return to school at Pima Butte Elementary. Photo by Anita McLeod

Brothers Brody and Madden Rastad are never far away from Mom, even at school.

Brody, 9, is entering fourth grade at Pima Butte Elementary School, where Madden will be a first grader and their mother, Yurosha Rastad, teaches second grade.

“We high-five each other in the hallway,” Yurosha Rastad said.

Brody and Madden are two of more than 6,300 students returning to Maricopa Unified School District for the 2017-18 school year.

Brody said he is happy about getting back together with friends at Pima Butte and its nice teachers.

“Everyone gives you a chance to do something amazing,” he said.

While Brody thrives in math, Madden, 6, said he liked the ABC Countdown in kindergarten and is excited about heading into first grade. Like her sons, Yurosha Rastad has best friends at Pima Butte. Several had children around the same time and now see them as students in the hallways, too.

All three Rastads will be back in their family-within-a-family when school starts Aug. 7. Some things might look a little different, though. At district and charter schools a new school year brings some surprises.

Here is a snapshot of updates parents and the community can expect at some Maricopa schools:

Maricopa USD

In addition to its high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools, Maricopa Unified School District will open an alternative school, Ram Academy. The district will implement a newly-adopted math and reading curriculum as well as a new testing platform across each of its schools.

With the successful passage of the budget override last year, MUSD hired 50 new teachers and gained new technology for classrooms. The district will see a slight change in its calendar, but won’t see a completely modified schedule until 2018.

Classes for all MUSD schools begin Aug. 7.

  • High Schools

Maricopa High School will receive six override teachers, and Ram Academy will receive seven. The high school’s sports programs will be headed by former Athletic Director Brian Winter, who replaces Mark Cisterna. Its alternative school will be run by Assistant Principal Steve Ybarra with an estimated enrollment of around 125 students with credit deficiencies.

  • Middle Schools

The 2017-18 school year will see Maricopa Wells and Desert Wind Middle Schools reintegrating sixth-grade students. Sixth graders were transitioned into district elementary schools four years ago.

Maricopa Wells Middle School Principal Rick Abel said his school will receive six new teachers from override funds and eight sixth-grade teachers who previously taught at MUSD elementary schools. Abel said enrollment at Maricopa Wells will be 850 to 900 students by the time schools begins. The middle school will acquire a full-time assistant principal in Thad Miller.

Desert Wind Middle School will absorb around 200 sixth graders in August.

  • Elementary Schools

Half of the positions funded by the override will be dedicated to elementary schools, including three counselors, one librarian and one teacher on special assignment.

MUSD elementary schools are reconfiguring as they return to the K-5 model. Pima Butte Principal Randy Lazar said his school’s enrollment dropped by 60 students from the sixth-grade transition, and he anticipates an enrollment of 480 to 490 students. Lazar hopes to keep key grades, like kindergarten and third grade, between 20 and 22 students per class.

Pima Butte, Santa Cruz and Butterfield Elementary schools will implement the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports initiative. The schools received the grant and subsequent training for the program last year. PBIS promotes schoolwide expectations for student behavior.

Maricopa Elementary School will attempt to be one of four of schools in Arizona to become a “Light house school.” The process involves a readiness review in October that focuses on the school’s “culture, academics and environment,” said MES Principal Jennifer Robinson.

Leading Edge

Leading Edge Academy implemented a waiting list in some grade levels for the first time this year. Principal Mat Reese said the school is near capacity at 776 students. The charter school offers K-8 instruction and an online high school.

Reese said new reading and math curriculum will be introduced this year as well as two new fulltime physical education teachers and a new dean of students, Sherreis Moreland. Assistant Principal Rachele Reese will shift her responsibilities from the elementary to the junior high, and Moreland will eventually take over discipline.

Facilities at Leading Edge will get upgrades, including a ramada with picnic tables, new art room inside the cafeteria and additional classrooms for first, second, fourth and fifth grades.

The first day of classes is Aug. 3.

Sequoia Pathway

The campus director at Sequoia Pathway Academy is not the only new addition to the school. Alfonso Alva, who came on board over the summer, said Pathway is adding four advanced placement classes: AP Literature and Composition, AP Psychology, AP Biology and AP Studio Art.

The school will also introduce a new music teacher and an expansion of its art program with a 3D studio arts course.

Classes begin Aug. 2.


Legacy Traditional School started classes July 24 after adopting a modified schedule that adds an additional week to fall and spring breaks. A teacher pay raise also went into effect, and Dino Katsiris joined the administration.

Principal Amy Sundeen said they are adding a yearbook elective in junior high as well as a robotics club and culture club.

(Raquel Hendrickson contributed to this story.)

This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.

Even the busiest parents can stay tuned into their child's education.

One of the many struggles facing grade-school education is parent/guardian participation. For teachers, it can be trying to get parents involved in their child’s education. For parents, it can be a struggle finding appropriate ways to get join in.

Pima Butte Elementary has one of the strongest records of parental involvement in the Maricopa Unified School District. Second-grade teacher Yurosha Rastad credits the school being small and within a tight boundary in Rancho El Dorado.

“My parents are amazing,” she said. “I have so many parents donate their time. We would have a field trip to the zoo, and 20 parents would volunteer. One comes in all the time to make copies for me.”

The school also has good participation in special events like Math Night, Water Day, a mother-son barbecue and a father-daughter dance.

But schools typically struggle to keep parents involved.

Mobile Elementary School teacher and 21-year education veteran Cindy Koontz of Maricopa suggested careful, calculated scheduling.

Parents looking to get involved at their child’s school should first look at various programs such as parent-teacher organizations and athletic booster clubs, Koontz said. Then, she said, compare your availability to the schedule of meetings and events for the specific programs to determine which is right for you.

Naturally, some parents have more free time than others. Some are stay-at-home parents or have flexible schedules that allow for more involvement. Others work long hours and are less available.

To those parents who are unavailable to take an active role in programs like PTO and athletics, Koontz said there are other ways to stay involved, the most important of which is maintaining communication with their child’s teachers.

Meet the Teacher Nights are also some of the best ways to get to know teachers, Koontz said. In her experience, it is an underappreciated event she wishes more parents would capitalize on.

“We want as good a relationship with the parents as with the students,” Koontz said. “Those face-to-face meetings help with that.”

She understands many families have hectic lifestyles, making it difficult to attend these events and become part of certain organizations. However, she feels involvement is not limited to simply volunteering for PTO.

Some teachers, she said, log daily updates in a student’s notebook or planner. This method gives the most transparency and the best “active” communication a parent can hope for. These daily progress reports are sent home, sometimes requiring parental signatures and, thus, creating a “paper trail” following a student’s educational path.

Whatever parents do, Koontz said, it is important to remember “teachers and parents are a team.”

“We’re people just like parents are,” Koontz added. “At the end of the day we always look back and see something we could have done better.”

This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.

By Ethan McSweeney

Soon, buses will be rumbling down Maricopa street,s and students will crowd sidewalks on their way to the first day of classes for the 2016-17 school year at district and charter schools.

Here’s what to expect:Youth-Back-to-school-MUSD

Maricopa Unified School District

With school starting Aug. 8 for MUSD schools, some district-wide changes affecting students include an expansion of before and after-school programs at elementary schools and the district’s blended-learning program, Superintendent Steve Chestnut said.

MUSD school buses will transport 3,600 students to and from school each day this school year.  Keeping buses cool for the first month can be a challenge when temperatures exceed 100 degrees, particularly on the afternoon routes. All MUSD buses have air conditioning, but the air conditioning units are only designed to drop the temperature in the bus 10-15 degrees. MUSD does not provide water to students on buses. Parents are asked to provide a bottle of water for the bus ride home in the afternoons. Another option would be to provide a reusable container that students can fill with water before boarding the school bus. Parents and community members are reminded to exercise caution when driving near schools.

Blended-learning, which teaches students through a combination of laptop-based learning and traditional instruction, will expand its enrollment capacity at Maricopa High School, the middle schools and Santa Rosa Elementary School.

MUSD is expecting 6,500 students this school year. Registration information can be found on the district’s website or at each neighborhood school.

About 25 new staff members will be added across the district following voter approval of Proposition 123, which allows Arizona to tap into the State Land Trust to give K-12 schools $3.5 billion over 10 years.

Chestnut will also be continuing in his role as superintendent of the district through at least 2018. The MUSD Governing Board approved a two-year extension of his contract last year with an annual salary of $147,000.

Maricopa High School

MHS welcomes two new administrators and a few new classes. Principal Renita Myers said a new assistant principal (Stephen Ybarra) and dean of students (Brian Winter) bring years of experience with them to the high school.

A fifth college class through Central Arizona College is added with Biology 181, and each student will have advisory time. “It’s an opportunity to look at their four-year plan,” Myers said. “And it provides more opportunity for kids to connect with their advisers.”

Another new class being offering German, the first time MHS has had a foreign language other than Spanish, Myers said.

Maricopa Elementary School

Maricopa Elementary will continue to work to instill good character habits in its students this year, Principal Jennifer Robinson said. MES teaches students character traits based on the popular book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” each morning beginning with a daily reflection question, she said.

Maricopa Elementary will also be a national board development site for teachers to obtain certification and reflect on their teaching. The certification, Robinson said, is one of the highest a teacher can obtain.

Pima Butte Elementary School

At Pima Butte, Principal Randy Lazar said he’s looking forward to another year with a continued focus on science, technology and the arts. He added they are looking for volunteers to help around the school and at school events.

Pima Butte students have been focusing on developing character traits, including caring, which Lazar said he hopes to show with a food drive during Meet the Teacher Night on Aug. 4. Cans of food and non-perishable food items will be donated to the local food bank, F.O.R. Maricopa.

Saddleback Elementary School

Saddleback plans to maintain the programs it’s been implementing in the past few years, which also include a focus on character development. “We believe that good character is one of the most valuable things our students should possess,” Principal Felicia Williams said in an email. “This seamlessly ties into parental involvement.”

Williams said Saddleback will continue with its mission of exposing students to technology throughout the day in the learning environment, and implementing its 21st Century Community Learning Center program in September.

Santa Cruz Elementary School

Santa Cruz will offer after-school programs this year, including drama, choir and color guard, for its fourth, fifth and sixth grade students, said Loraine Conley, the school’s principal. “We’re really trying to beef up our after-school opportunities,” Conley said.

Conley said she hopes to improve on communication this year at the school and to make Santa Cruz a better user of its technology. She’s excited about the growth Maricopa is experiencing this year with new families coming in. The school has also added a fourth-grade classroom.

CHARTER SCHOOLSYouth-Back-to-school-camino

Camino Montessori

Camino Montessori adds fifth and sixth grades this year following approval from the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, said Judy Webster, founder and director of Camino Montessori. With the increase in enrollment, the school is also actively searching for land and financing for a new campus, Webster said.

School starts Aug. 10.

Leading Edge AcademyYouth-Back-to-school-LE

Leading Edge is finishing construction on a two-story, 18-classroom building, including a gymnasium, on its campus to accommodate its growing enrollment. Principal Mat Reese expects 700 to 725 students this year, up from 430 last year.

The growth at the K-12 charter means the school will be nearly doubling its staff, including teachers, assistants and special education employees. Leading Edge is also be adopting a new curriculum, Reese said. School starts Aug. 9.

Legacy Traditional SchoolYouth-Back-to-school-legacy

A new principal, Amy Sundeen, will be taking the reins at Legacy Traditional School for its 10th year in Maricopa. Sundeen said the new administrative team at the school has several years of experience in Maricopa, and the charter school plans to strengthen its sports programs and work to be more involved in the community.

The first day of school is Aug. 3. Back-to-School Night is Aug. 1. Legacy is also now a fixed stop on COMET, City of Maricopa Express Transit, so students that didn’t have transportation before can now use the bus, Sundeen said.

Sequoia PathwayYouth-Back-to-school-SPA

Sequoia Pathway is undergoing major changes as it restructures its administration to have principals at the elementary, junior high and high school levels as enrollment grows. Rachael Lay is the elementary principal, Diane Silvia the junior high principal, and the high school principal is Nate Lamma.

The charter school is expecting around 1,160 students this year, up from just below 1,000 last year, with students wait-listed to get enrolled. Sequoia Pathway will adopt a new math program for grades K through nine that is more aligned with AzMERIT, and it plans on increasing Advanced Placement class offerings.

On the athletic side, Sequoia Pathway will have 11-man football this year, a change from 8-man football, and the elementary school will offer intramural sports.

Its Meet the Teacher Night is scheduled for Aug. 4. School starts Aug. 8.

This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.

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Central Arizona College students paused in their busy day for some socializing and food. Photo by Adam Wolfe

By Adam Wolfe

The Student Leadership Organization of Central Arizona College at the Maricopa campus set up a barbecue for students to have a free meal and socialize between classes.

The free meal provided students with a break, even if just for a moment, in their busy day. Students who had time stopped and relaxed while they enjoyed their food, while others were able to grab a hot dog in passing. Either way, they were offered a free meal and music to break up their day.

“Today’s event is to just be social and get people fed between classes because obviously some kids don’t have time,” SLOCAC member Jesse Gollubier said. “So we want to get them fed and just have fun.”

Campus leadership also set up volleyball nets for students who wanted to be active between classes. However, the triple-digit temperature kept physical exertion to a minimum.

“We’re just trying to get students more involved and make students feel comfortable and get them to interact with each other,” SLOCAC member Cathlyn Hernandez said.

Central Arizona College is hosting multiple events on the Maricopa campus this week. These events include a blood drive on Wednesday, and a scavenger hunt and Popsicle social on Thursday.

The SLOCAC will also be hosting various events throughout the year, including a ceremony for veterans and a retreat to Prescott.