The number of Arizona schools that earned "A" grades this year increased, but overall more than half were identified as "B" and "C" performing schools.
This is the second year the Arizona Department of Education has employed the letter-grading system to measure how well schools are performing.
This year, the letter grading system replaced the AZ Learns accountability system, which awarded labels that ranged from underperforming to excelling. The state made the results, which are from the 2011-2012 school year, public Thursday.
Of the nearly 1,300 traditional schools graded across the state, 283 were awarded "A's" this year, compared to 2011 when 231 schools earned that designation.
More than half - 865 - were awarded "B's" or "C's."
"Our department is dedicated to providing parents fair yet rigorous evaluations of schools so they can make informed decisions about their child's education," said Arizona Schools Chief John Huppenthal. "We recognize higher accountability leads to higher academic results. This has been proven over the last year, as we see the general trending upward in grades for many schools, charters, and districts."
"We are on our way"
Locally, the same trend held true, with 42 of the nearly 200 traditional schools in the Tucson area earning "A's," up from 37 last year.
Still, most Tucson-area schools - 124 - found themselves in the "B" or "C" categories.
No schools were given "F's" - a grade reserved for those schools ranked "D" for three consecutive years.
The Tucson Unified School District, Tucson's largest school district saw some improvement this year with 10 more "B" school designations and 10 fewer "D" schools.
The gains are proof, according to Superintendent John Pedicone, that TUSD is "on a positive trajectory."
The achievement was the result of work across the district to include school interventions for struggling students and to use data to drive and re-frame instruction.
Despite that success, nearly half of TUSD schools are considered to be "C" schools.
"We knew going into this process of reformation that it wouldn't happen overnight," Pedicone said. "We have a culture change going on and in the process we've demonstrated that within one year we could convert 'D' schools into 'B' or 'C' schools. We are on our way."
Though progress has been made, there is one challenge that TUSD will have to tackle - assisting one dozen schools that were unable to shake their "D" school status for the second year.
In addition to being at risk of being labeled an "F" school, those that receive a grade of "D" three years in a row will be placed under the school improvement process by the state education department.
In an effort to avoid that, TUSD will provide additional resources to those schools and make sure that they understand what the data means and the types of strategies that need to be in place, Pedicone said.
Receiving a "D" for the first time was TUSD's newest school - the Mary Belle McCorkle Academy of Excellence K-8.
The mission of the campus, which opened this past school year, was to prepare students to be successful at a college preparatory high school like University High, which earned an "A."
Pedicone attributed the low grade to the fact that McCorkle, 4455 S. Mission Road is a new school that accepted students who were feeding in from a number of other schools, creating some instability.
The district is hopeful that in a year, teachers will have a better understanding of the students and the community they are serving and that the school will succeed.
More work to do
The Sunnyside Unified School District, the second largest in the city, managed to earn an "A" at one of its schools - Gallego Basic Elementary School, which is a magnet.
That wasn't the case last year when Sunnyside had no "A" schools. It also reduced the number of "C" schools by two.
Like TUSD, Sunnyside had four campuses that received "D's" for a second year in a row - Apollo and Sierra middle schools, and Drexel and Los Ranchitos elementary schools.
"Although we have been doing a lot of good things, we still have more work to do," said Monique Soria, Sunnyside district's spokeswoman. "Now that we better understand the new accountability system, we have plans in place to address the performance labels for the schools and the district."
The tech-savvy Vail School District continued to fare well, earning 13 "A's" and two "B's" for its traditional schools. Vail has been hailed by the Arizona Department of Education as one of the top districts in the state.
"We are very honored for this designation," said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker. "Meeting the challenging criteria can only be accomplished when schools and communities work together. Our staff is committed to discovering the very best in our students and providing our parents a place where their children can obtain a quality education."
In the Flowing Wells Unified School District, Flowing Wells High School maintained an "A" grade for the second year, but two of its elementary schools - Laguna Elementary, formerly a "B" school, and Homer Davis Elementary, formerly an "A" school - dropped to "C's."
Superintendent Nicholas Clement attributed the drops to staff changes made at the classroom level at both schools during the year.
He said the district is looking at ways to make sure that unexpected changes, especially when it comes to classroom educators, don't happen in the future.
The Marana Unified School District continued to do well, with five of its schools receiving "A" grades, up two from 2011.
Brett Kramer, executive director of improvement initiatives for MUSD said the district is pleased overall with the letter grades, particularly with the three out of four secondary schools, Marana Middle School, Marana High School and Mountain View High School, that improved a letter grade this year.
Amphitheater School District had 13 out of 19 of its schools receive "A's" or "B's" this year, with eight schools improving a letter grade.
A grade for Prince Elementary School was pending as of Wednesday.
Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent, said while the district is proud of that fact, there are schools that still need improvement.
Frances Owen Holaway Elementary School was the district's only "D" for the year.
Jaeger said Holaway will receive extra attention this year, with a new principal, Chris Gutierrez, as well as a school improvement intervention team.
"We've got a lot of work to do to see the labels at some of our schools rise to our expectations and that of our public as well," Jaeger said.
On Starnet: You can check how your school and district did on both letter grades and on AIMS at azstarnet.com/databases
Here's what the letter grades mean:
• "A" schools demonstrate an excellent level of performance.
• "B" schools demonstrate an above average level of performance.
• "C" schools demonstrate an average level of performance.
• "D" schools demonstrate a below average level of performance.
• "F" schools are those that rank as "D" schools for three consecutive years. "F" schools are placed under the school improvement process by the Arizona Department of Education so they can receive extra support and resources.
How Pima County districts fared with grades for their schools
Amphitheater: Overall grade pending
A: 5 B: 8 C: 4 D: 1
Catalina Foothills: A overall
A: 7 B: 0 C: 0 D: 0
Flowing Wells: B
A: 1 B: 4 C: 3 D: 0
A: 5 B: 8 C: 3 D: 1
A: 0 B: 2 C: 4 D: 0
A: 1 B: 5 C: 8 D: 6
Tanque Verde: A
A: 2 B: 2 C: 0 D: 0
A: 8 B: 22 C: 44 D: 18
A: 13 B: 2 C: 0 D: 0
Across the state
• A: Of the 283 schools earning this label statewide, 42 are in Pima County.
• B: Of the 470 schools earning this label statewide, 57 are in Pima County.
• C: Of the 395 schools earning this label statewide, 67 are in Pima County.
• D: Of the 126 schools earning this label statewide, 30 are in Pima County.
Note: Grades not included for small, alternative or K-2 schools
Did you know?
When assigning letter grades, the Arizona Department of Education considers Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) scores, graduation and dropout rates, the reclassification of English-language learners and student growth from year to year.
When classes begin for local school districts:
Marana Aug. 6
Sahuarita Aug. 6
Sunnyside Aug. 6
Tanque Verde Aug. 8
Catalina Foothills Aug. 9
Flowing Wells Aug. 9
Amphitheater Aug. 9
Ajo Aug. 13
TUSD In session
Vail In session
Source: District websites
Star reporters Gerald Gay and Carmen Duarte contributed to this story. Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at email@example.com or 573-4175.