State Turnaround Teams: Arizona

Angela Denning, Deputy Associate Superintendent of School Improvement and Intervention

Teri Regan, Director of LEA and School Improvement-North Region


Arizona’s school turnaround team centers their SIG support system on four factors: 1) Technical Assistance (TA), 2) Professional Development, 3) Progress Monitoring, and 4) Compliance monitoring. While the state had focused on school improvement and intervention before the revamping of SIG, the new focus on turning around schools has provided an opportunity for Arizona to define a more structured, comprehensive system of support. The team is led by Angela Denning, the Deputy Associate Superintendent of School Improvement and Intervention. She oversees four regional directors who coordinate teams that provide direct support to districts.

Q: What are some of the challenges your team has faced in the first year of SIG implementation? 

A: One challenge we are encountering is figuring out how we at the state level evaluate ourselves, and how we know if we’re effective with this SIG work. Right now, we’re asking districts to think about what’s been most effective for them in implementation. This way, they can reflect, learn, and get better. But we have to do this at our level, too – we truly believe we have to walk the walk. So, we have an internal evaluator that we’re working with to define indicators and measurements to evaluate our effectiveness. 

Q: How are you helping your districts and schools build capacity?

A: The biggest struggle at the district level has been finding effective principals and teachers. A lot of our identified schools are in rural areas; a good number of schools are tribal and have high populations of Native American students, which add another dimension [to SIG implementation]. At the state level, we are trying to identify the correct level of support for these schools, and trying to find out what is enough support as we move forward. We want these reform efforts to be sustained, so we are scaffolding our support for different districts and schools, empowering them to take over the work as we build their capacity.

At the district level, we are also putting together professional development opportunities for leaders and instructional coaches. Because Arizona doesn’t have a supply of turnaround specialists or principals, and there’s no real training provided by universities in this area, we knew we needed to build leaders’ skills. We’ve learned that the training we've provided so far, however, isn’t intense enough. So, we’re looking at partnering with a national external provider to intensify training in our second year of implementation. 

For teachers, we are front loading training in the summer. Our persistently lowest-achieving schools send their teacher leaders to an “effective instructional academy” so that when they go back to the school, they’ll have the skills to teach the other teachers. We’re getting more involved at the school level because of the lessons we’ve learned in our first year. At first, we saw our responsibility to build capacity of districts so that they can support schools, but that hasn’t happened fast enough. So as the state, we had to be intentional in helping districts move information and support into the classrooms. 

We are also trying to create more flexibility for schools and districts by truly collaborating with our Title I and Title II teams, and providing information and training to districts on how to do so at their level. 

Q: What are lessons learned from your experience with SIG so far? 

A: We changed a few things going into the second round. We’ve instituted an onsite visit from a cadre of education experts – who we call “solution teams” – for districts with low-performing schools. The solution teams went out in January, looked at the systems that districts had in place, their strengths, challenges, and barriers, and provided a list of recommendations based on Arizona state standards and its rubric for school improvement. This was useful in that we are able to provide the district with information as they begin the SIG application process. By providing the district with a couple of additional eyes – more objective eyes – we helped provide insight and it resulted in a stronger application for the district. 

Last year, things happened so fast that we didn’t have the opportunity to do things like this, or delve into different strategies like bringing in external partners, or providing more guidance and training for good turnaround leaders.

Q: What support would you like to see from the federal government?

We’d like to see more direction on how we can co-mingle funds. It would also help for us to know how other states are handling evaluation of SIG at the state level. Finally, some guidance on how to use the flexibility afforded in SIG to the greatest impact would be very helpful.

Q: Any other advice you’d share with state turnaround directors?

A: Be sure to involve as many people as possible in your SIG process – anyone who is involved in overseeing implementation. The better the communication all around at the state level, the easier it will be for districts because they’ll be hearing consistent information. You have to push for collaboration to make this happen. We’ve gotten to where we are today because we have collaborated with others. Also, you should look at it as building true partnership, where both parties benefit.

I also want to reiterate the importance of support versus just compliance and monitoring. We do want to hold districts and schools accountable, but we want to support successful implementation. Districts and school staff welcome the focus on support and the TA, but it’s still suspect to some because it’s a new way of doing business.

Second, hold firm to the intent and the spirit of the School Improvement Grants. It’s about dramatic and bold changes in student achievement, and not accepting anything else than that. If the community is resistant, keep the focus on the students and student performance, and ask them, is this acceptable? And if it’s not, ask, how must we change things so that all students are given the high quality education that they deserve? We’ve gone through some resistance from the community with one of our districts, but the superintendent’s message to the community has been about students, and about what they deserve as far as a high quality education.

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