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Pima Butte Elementary School

Arizona Educational Foundation awarded Pima Butte Elementary with an A+ School of Excellence recognition.


Pima Butte Elementary received the prestigious A+ School of Excellence Award from the Arizona Educational Foundation.

It was one of just 52 schools statewide recognized this year and the only school in Pinal County. The award is in place for three and a half years. Earning the distinction, which has been around since the 1980s, was no easy task.

During a meeting of the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board, Principal Randy Lazar held up the 33-page application comprised of 53 questions requiring answers of 600 to 1,500 words each. It was completed over four months by staff and parent volunteers.

“It was a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “Not just a one-time thing. It was like preparing for the Boston Marathon.”

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said the school was evaluated on student focus and support, active teaching and learning, climate, parent involvement, community building and leadership. The award, she said, spotlights successes “happening at Pima Butte every single day.”

Pima Butte Elementary is also an A-rated school by the Arizona Department of Education.

Lazar credited the hard work of his staff, pointing out many of the teachers had been with the school 10 or 12 years.

“For a school to remain successful, you need a consistent staff, and that’s what Pima Butte has had over the years,” he said. “Not only a consistent staff, a dedicated staff.”

He said many of his teachers were at school before and after classes, on weekends, during breaks and during the summer.

“All of their hard work has led to this award this evening,” he said.

Principal Randy Lazar

Pima Butte Elementary is again an A-rated school. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

They don’t just teach students.

How did they do that?

Butterfield Elementary’s successful strategy to rise from a C to an A school:

  • Revamp the master schedule
  • Use data results to set grade-level and school-wide goals
  • Use results-based funding to equip third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students with 1-to-1 laptops
  • Reconfigure classes to better prepare students

Learn more about Butterfield’s turnaround in the next issue of InMaricopa.

Maricopa’s A-rated elementary schools can teach other educators how to improve their schools.

Butterfield Elementary had the most dramatic improvement, moving from a C to an A. It is the first A-rating for the Maricopa Unified School District school. Butterfield was not a “bad” school a year ago. Superintendent Tracey Lopeman pointed out its C rating was just five points away from a B.

Similarly, other elementary schools in the district were only a few percentage points from the next grade up this year.

Maricopa Elementary was 0.5 from an A. Santa Rosa Elementary 0.89 away from an A. Santa Cruz Elementary was 1.88 away from an A. Saddleback Elementary was less than 3 points from a B.

“I think the district as a whole is really doing well,” said Betty Graham, who teaches fourth grade at Pima Butte Elementary. “They’re working wonders, going up and up and up.”

Pima Butte, like the high-achieving charter school Legacy Traditional, is more old-hat at receiving A ratings, but it had to rise above a B last year after missing an A by just 4 percentage points through the more demanding AzMerit test. With ratings reliant on results of AzMerit, there was a lot of pressure on third, fourth and fifth grade students and their teachers.

“That A rating didn’t come easy,” PBES Principal Randy Lazar said. “It was a lot of hard work on behalf of our teaching team as well as the assistants with our students and also the support of our parents. It was a collective effort by our entire team.”

“We prepare with our rigorous curriculum each and every day in preparation for the big event,” said fifth-grade teacher Jessica Ansley.

Lazar said a brand new language arts curriculum and a relatively new math curriculum have helped create a very comprehensive academic experience and prepare the students for AzMerit or any other test.

Pima Butte was an A-rated school before there was an A rating. The state’s first rating system gauged schools on whether they met or exceeded the standard. PBES was an “excelling” school. When the grade ratings began, eyes lit up on campus.

“We were going to get an A, I remember that,” Graham said. “That’s what was on our minds, the kids’ minds, everybody’s mind. We were going to do it. They had an A; we were going to get it.”

Ansley called it teaching vigorously bell to bell.

At Pima Butte that means “lots of repetition,” third-grade teacher Denise Palmer said. “There’s no down-time, really. Coming from second to third grade is a big transition for these kids, so from the first day in, we’re hitting the ground running.”

The students do hit the books, but they also experiment with what they’ve learned in the classroom through hands-on activities. Positive reinforcement works wonders in galvanizing students to achieve.

Lazar said his main advice for other Arizona elementary schools trying to rise to a higher grade is to focus on student growth.

“We get our test results from the spring and then look to see how did each student perform,” he said. “If we have students that scored minimally proficient, that’s the group you want to put a lot of attention on the next school year. The way the state calculates the letter grade is when you have kids grow. It’s a growth model as far as earning the points.”

Meanwhile, he said, it is also important to maintain kids who are already at proficient or highly proficient.

A voter-approved override helped fund carts of technology in Netbooks and Chromebooks. The new equipment allowed the students to get more practice in the basic use of a computer. Lazar said that is key when taking the online-based AzMerit.

“Our whole focus last school year was just doing the best we could to prepare our third, fourth and fifth graders for AzMerit,” Lazar said. “Also what helped – AIMS Science, which is given in fourth grade, we were able to earn points for that, so that was factored in.”

There is also a lot of communication between teachers at different grade levels, Palmer said. Teachers share ideas that worked or didn’t work, they share information on the best approach for certain students, and they share ideas among campuses within the district.

Graham said she goes back to her students’ third-grade teachers to compare notes as a way to measure how students are progressing.

“And we’re very competitive, in a good way,” Graham said.

Pima Butte has approximately 465 students enrolled, about 100 of whom live outside the school’s boundaries. Because the override allowed the creation of new teaching positions, every classroom is in use.

MUSD Board Member Joshua Judd, a teacher in another district, said Pima Butte is the reason his children attend MUSD and are involved in Maricopa. “Pima Butte pulled my children into the city,” he said.

“We do what we need to do, and we do it in a fun and engaging way,” Ansley said.

There is no time for “filler.” Coloring days, extra recesses, non-curriculum videos – not at Pima Butte.

“My kids know,” Palmer said. “They will tell you, ‘Gotta do the work before we can have the fun.’ That’s the way it is. That’s how life is, isn’t it?”

This story appears in the December issue of InMaricopa.

PHOTO Derek Picha teaches physical education at Pima Butte Elementary School and is pursuing a master’s degree. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Derek Picha loved physical education as a kid so much he is now pursuing a master’s degree in PE.

“My favorite part of being an educator is getting to see kids experience that “Ah-ha!” moment every day,” Picha said. “Knowing that students leave my classes with a new skill or idea is truly rewarding.”

Last year, he was nominated for Rookie of the Year in Arizona Health and Physical Education (AzHPE).That is the state’s professional association for health and physical educators. It was his first year at Pima Butte Elementary School.

In February, he organized a Jump Rope for Heart event setting a school goal of raising $2,000 for the American Heart Association. Instead, PBES raised $3,228.

He said it is one of his proudest moments. This year, he said the new goal will be $4,000.

“I greatly enjoy all of the different activities being an educator can lead to,” Picha said. “For example, I get the honor of coaching our sixth grade students at Pima Butte as part of our district’s sixth grade athletics program.  We offer basketball, soccer, and cross country for free to our students.”

Based on research, Picha encourages parents to allow children to get in 30-60 minutes of “play time” before rushing into homework.

His involvement with AzHPE has given him the opportunity to present workshops at the state convention on implementing technology for assessment in physical education. He recently volunteered to serve on the association board.

Picha said he went into education as a career because he wanted to make a difference in the world. Education fulfills that need, he said, but he does believe so much high-stakes testing across the country is interfering with actual learning time.

His move to Maricopa from St. Cloud, Minnesota, was precipitated by cold weather. “I’ve chosen to remain in Maricopa because it has a welcoming feeling to it and I greatly enjoyed my first year of teaching physical education at Pima Butte,” he said.

He is following advice from a former teacher who suggested he start his master’s program before becoming heavily involved in coaching while teaching. He said that turned out to be great advice for his time management.

He has also benefited from St. Cloud State University professors stressing the importance of developing a strong professional learning network.  “As a result, I’ve attended a number of state and regional conferences and workshops and connected with countless like-minded educators throughout the world via social media,” he said.

PHOTO Derek Picha teaches physical education at Pima Butte Elementary School and is pursuing a master’s degree. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson
Derek Picha teaches physical education at Pima Butte Elementary School and is pursuing a master’s degree. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Derek Picha
Title: Physical Education Teacher
School: Pima Butte Elementary School
Hometown: Mora, Minnesota
Residence: Desert Passage
Education: Bachelor of Science in Health & Physical Education obtained in May 2013 from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  Currently pursuing an M.Ed in Physical Education from the University of Arkansas and plan to complete the program by the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Family: Duane Picha (father) and Kristie Picha (sister), both of whom reside in Minnesota.
Teaching positions held: I had one previous position as a part-time health education teacher serving students in grades 7-12 at an alternative school in St. Cloud.
Years in Education: 3
First job out of college: Part-time health education teacher at McKinley Alternative Learning Center in the St. Cloud Area School District.
Hobbies: Exercising, attending sporting events, watching movies
First year with current school: 2014-15
Favorite subject when you were in elementary school? Physical education
What have your students taught you? My students have taught me that a lot can be accomplished in a very short amount of time with the right amount of hard work and determination. This has become clear to me in my brief experience coaching sixth grade sports so far. With short playing seasons in basketball and soccer these kids amaze me with how much they improve from the start of the season to its conclusion.

This story appeared in the December issue of InMaricopa News.