Scottsdale’s Sequoya Elementary was one of 52 schools to receive the Arizona Education Foundation’s A+ School of Excellence award in 2019. The foundation has used the award to recognize exemplary schools across the state since 1983.
It is Sequoya’s fourth time winning the award, said Principal Veronica Leiper, who was an assistant principal at the school the last time it won in 2014.
Though Sequoya was the only school in the Scottsdale Unified School District to receive the A+ School of Excellence award in 2019, 10 schools in the district currently hold the award – which is valid for three-and-a-half years – said Dr. Ibi Haghighat, assistant superintendent for Elementary Education.
Other A+ School of Excellence schools in the district include Cherokee, Cochise, Hohokam, Laguna, Navajo, Redfield and Tavan Elementary schools; Copper Ridge School; and Chapparal High School.
According to the Arizona Educational Foundation, the award “is a comprehensive school assessment program that challenges school teams to work together to identify areas of excellence in teaching, learning, climate, community building and leadership.”
Leiper, the Sequoya principal, said her school excels because of its focus on the whole child.
She said she is a big supporter of an Arizona law passed last year requiring all K-5 schools to provide two recess periods per day, noting how important it is for children to have the opportunity to get up and move around.
“It is whole child,” Leiper said. “The social emotional aspect has to be there; they have to know you care about them before they can learn and that is what is important to me.”
Communicating that strategy to the AEF was no small task.
Leiper outlined the process a school must go through to earn the award, which starts with a 60-page application.
“They truly grill you on everything you do,” Leiper said. “They look at every part of the school: teachers, parents, students and the community.”
The AEF then selects the top schools from those submissions.
Judges, who are principals and past award winners, then spend two days visiting every classroom on campus to verify that all the information presented in the application is accurate.
The judges meet with teachers, students, parents, classified staff and administration as part of the review.
The judges who visited Sequoya Elementary were immediately impressed, Leiper said.
“Our judges that came in, they truly said to me that they could not keep a poker face while they were there,” Leiper told the SUSD Governing Board on April 16.
Leiper said what really stood out to the judges was that every group they met with — from students to staff — mentioned the word family in describing the school.
“That made me feel really good, because that is atmosphere I want,” Leiper said.
Though the AEF highlighted each principal who won the award, Leiper is quick to pass on the praise to the entire Sequoya community.
“It was funny because the next day, everyone kept congratulating me, and I kept saying to my teachers ‘it’s not me; it’s them,” Leiper said. “I am just so proud.”
She added, “As a principal, I always say my number one job — my priority — is to put a great teacher in every classroom, and I am very proud to say I have an amazing teacher in every one of my classrooms.”
Leiper even gave a shout out to her students at Sequoya, noting that one judge told her “this is best student tour I have been on.”
Leiper said receiving the AEF’s A+ designation is an “important verification that we are doing what we should be doing.”
She also said the award is beneficial to Sequoya Elementary as a marketing tool as it competes for students in Arizona, where school choice makes it easy for parents to opt out of the neighborhood school in favor of private schools, charter schools or other public schools.
“This award is important, because it is showing to community that we are an A+ school,” Leiper said.