Amid cactus blooms and warm spring sunshine, the Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC) team journeyed to Arizona to celebrate the launch of its new Regional Hub partnership with the Arizona Rural Schools Association (ARSA) and Northern Arizona University Rural School Resource Center (NAURRC). As the leading voice for rural education in the state, ARSA has long ensured that Arizona’s rural educators are elevated and represented. The partnership with RSC is yet another step forward in that work at the national level. To this same end, the NAU Rural Schools Resource Center was recently established to become the “premier service institution” for rural schools in the state with a focus on gathering resources, building talent capacity, and strengthening rural communications. This visit by the RSC team was an opportunity to both witness the realities of learning and living rurally in Arizona, and to advance the work of the new Hub Partners in the field, by visiting four distinct rural schools across the state.
A Culture and Climate of Respect
The RSC staff first traveled to the legendary town of Tombstone for the first school visit of the trip. Far more than a monument to the mythos of the American West, the community of Tombstone is home to an exemplary school district whose programming and student achievements have made national impact. “There’s more to the town than the movies,” shared David Thursby, Principal at Tombstone High School for 14 years. Thursby underscores that it’s the distinctive school culture and community, thoughtfully cultivated by the high school faculty and staff, that stands prominently as the defining hallmark of the district. “Culture and climate are of key importance to us,” Thursby explains, “We hold to the expectation of respect for people and property.” Over the years, this intentional effort at generating a culture and community of respect has not only seen enrollment grow but also an accompanying high degree of teacher retention.
Part of this success also stems from the district’s dedicated push for professional skills and expanded extracurriculars. Some highlights of the district’s Career and Technical Education offerings the RSC Team toured included the High School’s newly built agriculture and welding building, featuring a lab dedicated to agricultural sciences, and a full-scale commercial kitchen for the school’s popular culinary arts program. Thursby explained further that the larger philosophy at play here was that “if a student connects to a program on campus, they’re going to be more successful.” And so, the school has also set about offering more extracurricular activities, including new clubs for rodeo, mountain biking, and e-sports. However, the powerhouse program on campus is the JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), which draws between 25% and 30% of all students each semester. Central to the program’s popularity, Master Sergeant Dan Kilpatrick shares, is its emphasis on building personal and life skills in addition to the physical training often associated with the program. Spending just one day a week on instruction, students in the program are encouraged to focus on work that transcends the school walls. What this thriving assortment of CTE programs and extracurriculars has done for the district, Principal Thursby says, is strengthen the connections between the school and community, all while offering numerous pathways for student involvement and success.
A Commitment to Community
Only a short 30 minute drive to the north from Tombstone through desert hills and pistachio groves is the small town of Benson, the RSC team’s second stop on the tour. Superintendent Micah Mortensen emphasizes that a sense of community and belonging runs deep among the staff and students. During their time at Benson High School, the RSC staff had the opportunity to meet with a group of students and teachers to hear about their experiences. What became quickly apparent was how strongly bonded everyone felt to each other as much as their place, even those who were not originally from Benson. “I moved here last summer,” one student shared. “I really liked how well the teachers and students got along with each other. I think this place has good relationships.” This sentiment was echoed by one of their peers: “I came here my freshman year and what I like about the school is that, even though I came from an even smaller school, I didn’t feel like I was lost when I came here.”
This strong sense of community that permeates the school has been a core factor for attracting and retaining the faculty. Robert Christo, a 33-year veteran teacher, shares that “this school is different from the others I’ve taught at just because of the community…I’m really impressed with the involvement of adults that volunteered their time from the community to make these kids better.” For newcomer Ben Miller too, a science teacher in his third year, the opportunity to experience meaningful connections to others was a key reason for choosing Benson: “The community and unity that goes along with working and living in a rural area is one of the things that mainly drew me to Benson. Not only is the student body wonderful and welcoming, but the teachers, staff, faculty, and community as a whole is one unit and they work together to make things happen.”
Superintendent Mortensen explains that in addition to world class teachers and students, leadership has been key to Benson’s continued success. Built on ideas of “respect, commitment, collaboration, and trust,” Mortensen shares that “we’re mission first and people always. It’s not what the goal is, but how we get there and especially how you treat people.”
A Center for Service and Identity
A new day found the RSC team traveling next to Stanfield, situated in the agricultural heart of central Arizona and the home district of Melissa Sadorf, the ARSA President, RSC’s Arizona Regional Hub contact, and a proud rural superintendent. If not for the palm trees and red-brown mountains, Stanfield’s dairy farms and tractor-studded landscape could well be anywhere in the Midwest. One thing the Stanfield Elementary School does share with many of its Midwestern fellow districts is the central role it plays as a service provider and source of local identity. Sadorf explains that “school pride is very high,” and in a time when more essential businesses and services are tending to relocate out of rural communities like Stanfield, she joyfully declares that “the school remains.”
The Stanfield Elementary District only educates through Grade 8, but draws students from a nearly 600 square mile region, including a neighboring Tribal Nation that consistently accounts for nearly 20% of the student population. Additionally, many of the families served happen to be some of the most in-need in the state, with the school’s ZIP code listed as the second poorest. As a site of shared connection across such a large area then, Sadorf and Stanfield Elementary Principal Jennifer Murrieta highlight that the school is able to perform naturally as a critical service provider for the needs of both students and their families, becoming a steady source for meals and vision and dental services. The school is also actively working on a plan to convert a grouping of unused buildings into a permanent, fully-operational health clinic.
What this has created locally is a robust relationship within the school itself, and a sense of identity and belonging within the larger community centered on the school. “The culture and school family are the biggest highlights of the district,” Principal Murrieta says, “everyone feels a connection with the students and staff.” And the changes are noticed, Murrieta continues that “the school has noticeably changed for the better recently, and the community is seeing those changes and is happy to bring their kids here.” Recognizing their central role, Sadorf adds that “the teachers are working on being that sense of pride and local identity in the students as well.”
Fighting for People and Place
Heading northeast into the mountains of one of Arizona’s prominent copper mining regions, the RSC staff made their final stop in Superior. Being a rural district, regardless of the mineral fortunes under their feet, has brought the same staffing and resource challenges, common to much of rural America, to Superior. However, Stephen Estatico, Superintendent for the Superior School District and a member of ARSA’s governing board, shares that an intentional mission to put people first has created a constructive atmosphere for students and staff alike. “We’re only as good as the people we have,” Estatico explains, “So we went to a 4-day work week. Along with that, just the familiarity among people and the ability to watch students learn and grow year-to-year is a key draw for folks.” Making people the central focus of your work is something High School Principal William Duarte, who grew up attending the Superior School District, also understands intimately: “Everyone is in the same boat, we have to learn how not to overload someone and be there to support them.” This commitment to people extends to student wellbeing and success as well, already netting impressive student outcomes in state national awards as well as numerous full ride scholarships annually.
Just as it rallied in support of students and staff, the school also stepped up when a wildfire threatened the town itself. At the height of the conflagration, the school received a call from the firefighting forces asking for assistance. “Without a moment’s hesitation,” Estatico recalls, “we opened the doors of the school. We ended up housing them all here on the campus, staging more than 800 to 900 (two-and-half times the size of the whole student body) of them to fight the fire right on the edge of the campus.” Due to the school’s generosity and quick action, a tragedy that seemed all but certain was averted. This very commitment to people and place lives on in the daily work of Estatico and his staff, and is seen in the care and passion that students of Superior High School embody for the place they call home.
Hallmarks of the Rural Advantage
Impressed and inspired by the four schools visited in just two short days, the RSC team made their return trip back to the Midwest eager to work hand-in-hand with ARSA and NAURRC in order to advocate for the students and educators they met. Though the scenery differed and each school had its own unique local assets and considerations to appreciate, what stood out at each of the four sites were some of the same hallmarks that characterize the rural school advantage: a deep commitment to people and place, a tireless devotion to student success against all odds, and a contagious energy to do the most with everything that’s available, to name just a few. While the work of ensuring rural schools remain strong is far from over, telling these few stories of good work and the people doing it goes far in showing appreciation and giving praise where it is most certainly due.
Thank you to the Arizona Rural Schools Association and the Northern Arizona University Rural Schools Resource Center for your partnership! It is your enthusiasm to collaborate and fight for rural schools that allowed this trip to happen, and that enabled the good folks of these four school communities to have a shot at a thriving rural future. Thank you to all the staff and students of Tombstone USD, Benson USD, Stanfield ESD, and Superior USD for your warm hospitality and open-heartedness during this visit!
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