Through hosting GEARS, Avondale Elementary School District has seen student achievement rise and other tangible benefits emerge. (AESD/Submitted)

In an effort to ensure success throughout the upcoming school year, Avondale Elementary School District brought teachers together for its seventh year of the Growing Educators, Achieving Results with Students (GEARS) event July 26.

Over the seven-year course of GEARS, AESD has seen student achievement rise and other tangible benefits emerge.

“Every child in Avondale deserves to grow as a thinker, problem solver, and communicate the pursuit of reach without limits. It’s our collective responsibility to make sure that happens. Working through GEARS is bringing groups of educators together to change the conversation definitively, and the outcomes are very real,” Superintendent Dr. Betsy Hargrove said.

In the spring of 2015, school leaders from the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia presented Gov. Doug Ducey with a proposal outlining a school transformation pilot program called Project Momentum.

The aim of this effort was to provide a comprehensive school-improvement model designed to assist students, teachers and staff members in meeting the goal of increasing student achievement. The model focused on improvements to instructional quality that have proven to advance student learning at a rate needed to offset challenging factors such as the strong correlation between free and reduced lunch percentage and student outcomes on standardized tests.

Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, Ducey entered into a public-private partnership with the Challenge Foundation and Avondale Elementary School District (AESD) to implement Project Momentum. 

AESD was selected because the school district showed evidence of being on the right track for initial implementation with a preexisting school improvement planning model that complemented the tenets of Project Momentum. In addition, Avondale showed an engaged student population, caring community and a district/school leadership committed to the concept of continuous improvement. 

Ducey invested $575,000, which supported teacher leadership grants for select members at each school, principal and assistant principal stipends, substitute coverage to allow for teachers to commit to training, and early start training stipends. 

Hargrove, along with her school leaders and instructional staff, engaged with the Project Momentum implementation team to collaboratively develop a strategic plan for improvement. 

The Avondale teachers and staff members formed a guiding coalition to help plan and drive improvement efforts at their individual schools. During the course of the project, this coalition of teachers and staff rebranded their work with Project Momentum as GEARS. 

The plan aimed to increase overall pass percentages on the AzMERIT assessment in reading and mathematics for every school in the district and achieve results at or above the performance regression line.

From the 2021-22 school year’s statewide assesment, AESD has outperformed the average growth in achievement by two times compared to the rest of the state. Every school within the district has demonstrated growth on the assessment, ranging from a 1% to 9% difference.

Hargrove said she owes this consistent ratio to the work that is being done within the classrooms. 

“Every educator in every one of our classrooms has to grow as a thinker, problem solver and communicator to pursue their future without limits, which then directly impacts what happens with every one of our kids. Every child, every classroom, every teacher, every school, every leader in our district is what makes a difference with what happens here in Avondale. That is what sets us apart,” she said.

Lori Goslar, principal at Michael Anderson School, has taken part in GEARS every year since it was introduced to the district, noting that the collaboration that has come from it is a representation of the district and its ability to achieve results.

“Growing educators helps us to grow our students so that they can do as our vision and mission states: be problem solvers and thinkers and have strength,” Goslar said.

“As a leadership team, it has engaged us in the latest in learning. We are all learners and have grown through that learning. It in turn helped us to engage our teachers, and they’re a part of a shared leadership team that helps to lift our students and share the overall growth. We have continued to grow on a year to year basis.”

District enrollment has stabilized as parents recognized and became part of the effort to improve school quality; transitions in school leadership and teacher vacancies positions declined; staff developed a greater sense of ownership and understanding of their shared strategic vision and chose to stay in the district; and expectations for student achievement increased, as did results.

“This opportunity is a time for us to come together and work collaboratively to be able to ensure that every one of our children grow as thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, to pursue that future without limits, because they deserve it,” Hargrove said.

“We could not be here without what has happened over the past seven years in the building of this process and bringing people together.”