When Scottsdale Unified Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard announced during a school board meeting Coronado High School’s state letter grade improved from a “C” to “B,” the news was met with applause with most parents, teachers and staff in attendance.
The higher-grade was a tangible result of years of effort to improve academics at Coronado, although education experts warn grades like those given by the state should be taken with a grain of salt.
But the grade only tells part of the story at Coronado, where Principal Amy Palatucci is putting on a full-court press to dispel longstanding negativity and improve outcomes for students.
The list of ways Palatucci and her staff are working towards those goals is long, though it boils down to one major tenet: stop the negativity.
Negative storylines about the school – from enrollment decline to academic performance – have a tangible effect on students, said Palatucci, who took over Coronado on an interim basis last year before taking over permanently.
She is doing her part to reduce negativity by emphasizing the need for teachers and staff to support students on an individual level and focus on their successes.
“I am very hands-on, so in the mornings, if I’m not at a meeting or at the district, I’m usually out at one of the gates greeting kids and telling them I’m glad they’re here,” she said.
She has also reduced negative forms of punishment, replacing suspensions with restorative practices.
“They’re acting out for a reason,” Palatucci said. “They need to be in school.”
Palatucci also encourages teachers to make five “intentional” phone calls to families per week focusing on student successes “so we’re not just calling home when someone’s in trouble or they didn’t do their homework or they’re failing.”
The results of Palatucci’s approach are easy to see when she makes her daily rounds through the hallways, chatting with students, high-fiving and handing out tiny slips of paper can be exchanged for goodies in the bookstore.
Still, moving past the negativity is no easy feat.
The school struggled with enrollment – a district-wide trend affecting Coronado more than other district high schools.
An enrollment analysis presented to the Governing Board by contractor Applied Economics in November showed Coronado’s enrollment declined from 1,072 in 2017 to 902 this year.
Additionally, while the adoption of the Coronado Success Initiative in 2017 was meant to boost academic performance, it became a source of controversy with parents, students and teachers.
The program increased professional development and started building partnerships with business groups and Arizona State University.
However, former Superintendent Denise Birdwell also forced all teachers to reapply for their jobs.
The school is still fighting to return stability to its teaching staff but progress is being made.
When Palatucci started at Coronado, 39 of the school’s 60 teachers were in their first three years of employment but the school had a turnover of just nine staff members between 2018 and 2019.
“I really pushed the message (to teachers) my expectations are high, because I want your expectations to be high, but I’m going to help you,” Palatucci said.
Palatucci said these days the Coronado Successive Initiative, which the district changed to include the elementary and middle schools in Coronado’s area, is less of a program unto itself and more of a resource.
It gives her the tools to administer a variety of other programs, from increased professional development for teachers to mentoring for students.
Coronado is showing improvement academically – as evidenced by its new state letter grade.
Palatucci is quick to point out the letter grades – and the AzMerit test scores they are based on – are not the greatest measurements of school achievement.
“I’m not saying it’s the best test…but it’s what we have,” she said.
But she said the metrics have some value.
“What I look for is the growth piece. I do believe our kids can do it with the right support,” she said.
The Arizona Department of Education recently changed its rubric for grading schools to include more emphasis on growth rather than just proficiency – a move likely contributed to Coronado’s improved letter grade.
Coronado’s achievements on the AzMerit test are noteworthy considering the school’s demographics.
Coronado is the only Title 1 high school in SUSD and 71 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
No other high school in the district has a student population with over 32 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
Audrey Beardsley, professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, said there is a negative correlation between test scores and schools with high poverty and other risk factors.
“The correlations are very strong to the point we as statisticians can use those risk variables and predict 80 percent of the time how students will perform without them even the test-taking place,” she said.
Coronado was criticized in Governing Board meetings as recently as last year for its AzMerit scores.
Palatucci said focusing solely on the passing rate misses the growth the school has experienced this year.
For instance, just 18 percent of Coronado students who took the Algebra II test in 2019 passed, but it still marks a drastic improvement over the 9 percent pass rate the year before.
“That’s a 100 percent rate of growth,” Palatucci said.
While the school dipped on other specific tests this year, overall pass rates on its AzMerit English tests were up 20 percent over the previous year.
Coronado’s overall pass rate in math was up 11 percent in 2019 over the previous year.
Palatucci said she is also focused on improving outcomes for students when they leave Coronado, whether it means sending them to college, a trade school or on a path towards a steady career.
“Honestly, I’m going to judge my success four years down the road,” she said. “I want to see what happens to my students. I want to see where they end up, which is hard to track, but really that is our goal to prepare them for life beyond high school.”
Palatucci touts Coronado’s longstanding Jobs for Arizona Graduates, program, which gives enrolled students individualized plans to succeed after graduation.
The JAG program helps students with everything from campus visits and scholarships to securing jobs after high school with corporate partners like HonorHealth, said Wendy Paez, Coronado’s JAG instructor.
JAG students also receive a full year of follow-up services after graduation – though Paez said those supports can often extend much further.
“We tell kids to fly the coop, but they know they can still return to the nest,” she said.
For the whole student body, Palatucci is expanding a mentorship program by matching a teacher with five students. Last year, the program focused on students with low grades but the goal is to have each student match with a teacher.
“It shows them there’s someone there who cares,” Palatucci said.
The process of increasing supports for students on campus does not exist in a vacuum, Palatucci said, and includes feedback from the students themselves.
Palatucci said QR codes placed around the school allow any student to fill out feedback surveys and she convened a student advisory board - it meets with her for lunch once a month.
“They give me input on how I can improve, and I ask them questions about what’s going on campus with teachers, with culture,” Palatucci said. “And I tell them ‘give it to me honestly.’ If we don’t know, we can’t help improve.”
Palatucci has also been aggressive about bringing colleges like Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University and Scottsdale Community College on campus to meet with students regularly.
The school also hosts workshops to help students and parents fill out the complicated application required of prospective college students seeking financial aid.
Palatucci credited Siena Moreno, who runs the school’s Higher Education Center, for going above and beyond to support families and follow up with students to make sure they are prepared for making the next step after high school.
The school is also making strides to improve students’ college readiness.
The number of students taking AP or dual enrollment courses, which can count towards college credit, increased by 27 percent at Coronado between 2018 and 2019.
Coronado is also planning to expand its AP course offerings and pilot a pre-AP program for all freshman and sophomore English and social studies classes.
Despite the progress made in her first year, Palatucci said she is not done.
“Because again, I’m never going to say we’re done growing,” Palatucci said. “We’re always going to try to grow and get better.”