Tanque Verde Unified School District
Many schools and districts in Arizona and across the country have understandably struggled to recover from the unprecedented declines in student achievement resulting from the pandemic. On average, third grade reading proficiency among Arizona public and charter schools declined by 5 percentage points between 2019 and 2022.
Remarkably, both of Tanque Verde Unified School District’s elementary schools showed significant increases over the same period, soaring to levels of student achievement even higher than their pre-pandemic rates.
- Agua Caliente Elementary School’s third grade passing rate jumped 25 percentage points between 2019 to 2022, from 52% to 77%.
- Tanque Verde Elementary School’s passing rate grew by 15 pts, from 60% to 75%.
School leaders identified several key strategies as the factors driving these dramatic gains in third grade reading proficiency:
- Grade-level teachers working together.
- Real-time student data to drive instruction.
- Re-engaging students and families to reduce chronic absence.
What key factors drove TVUSD’s success?
Tanque Verde Unified School District (TVUSD) in Tucson, Arizona is home to two elementary schools: Aqua Caliente Elementary and Tanque Verde Elementary. Read On Arizona sat down with school leaders to understand the strategies they believe contributed to their improvement in student achievement.
- Dr. Scott Hagerman – Superintendent, Tanque Verde Unified School District
- Emma Batty – Principal, Tanque Verde Elementary School
- Chris Rietz – Principal, Agua Caliente Elementary School
1. Grade-Level Teachers Working Together
At both of TVUSD’s elementary schools, collaboration among educators is fully integrated into their approach. Teachers, practitioners, and educators meet regularly to share expertise, learning and working together to improve their own teaching skills and improve outcomes for students.
When Superintendent Hagerman came into his role in 2017, the district embarked on a process to establish a professional learning community model to cultivate collaboration among grade-level teachers.
“That started with building relationships among teachers in the teams,” Rietz said, to build trust and the feeling of “together we’re better.” Teachers had previously worked on a more individual basis.
Over the next two years, “we made our schedules so that teams met weekly, Hagerman said. “A lot of that time was (spent) building units, trying to build a guaranteed viable curriculum,” a sequenced, evidence-based approach to teaching that is aligned with standards.
"All staff have, or are in the process of being, trained in LETRS."
In addition to implementing curricular resources that provide the essential components of a structured literacy approach, including phonics, “all staff have, or are in the process of being, trained in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS).”
As the professional learning communities developed, teachers became more and more comfortable in planning and working together and more open about different practices, including using student data to tailor instruction. One small tool that a made a big impact was a simple protocol for starting weekly meetings by discussing successes and what worked for students, rather than getting bogged down in problems and barriers.
When the pandemic happened, the professional learning community process that was started a year and half before was solidified. “They had to collaborate,” Hagerman said, “and that team structure became like a lifeline.”
Teachers believe in value and power of the team approach, and the district’s emphasis on supporting its educators goes further. Time for planning and training is protected by leadership, and investments are made in professional development and creating opportunities for staff to share their learning with peers.
2. Real-Time Student Data to Drive Instruction
Another key to TVUSD’s success was an emphasis on formative assessment and ongoing evidence of student learning to guide instruction. In response to the pandemic, teachers and district leaders recognized the need to focus on the essentials — the most important learning for each grade level — and strive to excel in those areas. But in the years before, the district had already begun the process of reworking their approach to assessment.
"Initially, in the first couple of years, we deemphasized benchmarks," the standardized tests administered three times over the course of the school year. "We didn’t do that because they’re not important," Hagerman said, "but they had become very compliance oriented. We needed a more formative, week-by-week process. Let’s get teachers responding to what they’re seeing in the classroom."
TVUSD created a balanced assessment framework based on what students need to know, with checks along the way to make sure kids are making progress. A crucial piece was involving teachers in building these assessments and processes collaboratively. “They own it and see the value in it,” Batty said.
"We went from bringing data to every meeting to bringing evidence of student learning."
Grade-level teacher teams review formative assessment data in regularly-scheduled meetings “every single week.” Teachers also bring observations, written assignments, and other examples of student work from the previous week. “We went from bringing data to every meeting to bringing evidence of student learning,” Hagerman said. “It’s not always about numbers.”
Using these tools, educators review data and evidence of student learning as part of their standard practice. “They’re able to identify where students are getting stuck, where they need additional support,” Batty said. This weekly, team approach has empowered teachers to discuss and respond more effectively to students’ individual needs with instruction, interventions, or enrichment.
One strategy that illustrates how the schools put data into action to drive student learning is called WIN Time. WIN is an acronym for “What I Need.” For 40 minutes each day, students break into groups based on their progress and receive support and enrichment from a teacher in their grade-level. Reading specialists also provide focused interventions on specific skills.
WIN Time has been an effective strategy to keep students moving forward in their learning, fueled by teachers being open to “sharing students” when a different teacher may have a particular strength that might better support the specific needs of a struggling student. The level of collaboration and trust to be open to sharing kids must be developed over time, Hagerman said, and “it makes a huge effect.”
“We really emphasize that these are our kids and we’re all working together to make sure they’re successful,” Batty said.
3. Reducing Chronic Absence
In contrast with the statewide trend of dramatically-increasing chronic absence rates (the percentage of students missing ten percent or more of the school year), both TVUSD elementary schools reduced chronic absence between 2018 and 2021. Because chronic absence and student achievement are inversely correlated, the schools’ success in reducing chronic absence was a likely contributor to their increases in literacy outcomes. (Analysis of Arizona school-level data showed that a 1% increase in school-level attendance rate was associated with a 1.5% increase in students passing Arizona’s third grade reading assessment.)
There were some critical choices made by TVUSD to address absences. First and foremost was recognizing the importance of relationships and strengthening the connection of students and their families to their school. School leaders and educators built in things like small group lunches with students, taking the time to create connections between adults and students, and strengthening student-to-student relationships, which enhanced the student’s view of belonging to their class.
Superintendent Hagerman underscored the importance of taking a preventive approach: “When kids are absent, it leads to the next absence.”
TVUSD’s elementary school teams also recognized the variety of ways families were responding and perceiving safety and the return to in-person schooling throughout the pandemic. This was demonstrated by the schools’ use of “flex” teachers to provide online instruction. As students’ needs changed, the teachers’ approach changed. If COVID case numbers went up in the community, a family could opt to move instruction back online and move back and forth between online and in-person instruction freely. TVUSD also used Google Classroom to their advantage. “We didn’t just re-create what we did before,” Hagerman said. “We tried to blend learning opportunities in a lot of different ways, and that flexibility helped keep kids engaged and connected to their learning, so we didn’t lose as many kids along the way.”
When students were all online, TVUSD also made online instruction available on school campuses, in multi-purpose rooms and outside spaces. This allowed the district to use space to support parents. Practices such as allowing Chromebooks to be checked out and creating pickup times for items like library books and learning packets created flexibility. The district’s intentional approach provided students with different options to learn and gave parents options based on their work/life situation.
"We want to emphasize how important it is for them to be here and how we want to support them."
Communication and outreach about missing days, and the alignment of messaging across both schools, were also strategies TVUSD used to tackle chronic absenteeism. Both principals shared that they operate in lockstep and coordinate both operations and expectations, messaging to families about attendance in a way that is positive, understanding, and supportive. “We don’t focus on perfect attendance, Batty said. “We want to emphasize how important it is for them to be here (in school) and how we want to support them.” Staff and teachers know their students and can adapt individual messaging.
Highlighting the people and school programs that draw students to school, such as art or the library, is also part of the effort. And importantly, the schools acknowledge that families and students may be dealing with issues beyond their control. When it is clear a family is struggling, the schools work to connect them to counselors and other supports to help with reengagement.
“I think we do a nice job of building and maintaining relationships with families,” Batty said.
Chronic absence has continued to soar in schools across Arizona and around the country, reaching unprecedented levels in 2022. TVUSD’s rates have increased as well, and school leaders are taking action. Superintendent Hagerman is serving on the Arizona Chronic Absence Task Force, and representatives from TVUSD are participating in a series of trainings to learn additional, evidence-based strategies to mobilize school staff and community partners to prevent chronic absence and promote attendance.
“Our process is based on continuous improvement,” Hagerman said, “which is a core component of a professional learning community. We work to better understand the needs of each-and-every student and are adjusting our approaches and supports to ensure every student is successful.”