CASA GRANDE — The Casa Grande Elementary School District is not where it wants to be when it comes to AzMERIT scores and the state letter grades for its schools, but the district is seeing improvement, said Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales in her annual State of the Schools address Tuesday evening.

Gonzales highlighted many of the district’s accomplishments throughout the evening by inviting several students, staff and teachers up to the podium to talk about their experiences and why they enjoyed working or learning in the district.

“We believe much of the professional learning put in place last year and many of the curricular changes we put into place last year are coming together and really creating an elevation in instructional practice and student learning,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of momentum this year in our classrooms and we’re excited about where it’s going to take our students.”

Gonzales also discussed some of the district’s many challenges, including declining enrollment; that about 80 percent of the district’s students are on the National School Lunch Program; and that the district is below the state average in proficiency on the AzMERIT tests.

The Arizona Department of Education released AzMERIT scores for schools throughout the state in early October. The percentage of Casa Grande Elementary students passing reading and math in each grade tested hovered between the low 20s and high 30s, with the exception of advanced eighth grade math classes. The scores are similar to the previous year’s.

The district is still working to recover from when the state changed from the AIMS test to AzMERIT in 2014, Gonzales told the audience of about 40 teachers, staff, members of the public and administrators.

“We’re behind where we need to be but we’ve put some instructional measures in place to catch up and keep up once we’re there,” she said.

However, the district is seeing gradual improvement when the district looks at each cohort of students, Gonzales said. She pointed to the AzMERIT scores for fifth graders, who were fourth graders the previous year.

According to the scores, 29% of fourth graders passed math and 31% passed English in the earlier year. The next year, 38% of fifth graders passed math and 40% passed English.

“We’re actually making up ground with all of our cohorts of students and we’re really proud of that,” she said.

Gonzales pointed how much the district has benefited from the 2016 bond issue. It allowed the district to replace 26 buses that were failing, build a new school and make ongoing repairs and improvements to the district’s existing schools.

The district is also looking forward to getting additional funds from the state for capital improvement projects, she said. However, state funding for the district and schools around the state is still below the level of funding before the Great Recession started in 2008.

The district is also partnering with local businesses to bring in leaders who can tell students about the various careers that are available in their hometown, she said. Arizona Public Service Co. gave the district a $140,000 grant last year to help with math classes. The district also partners with local nonprofits such as Boys & Girls Clubs of the Casa Grande Valley to provide a safe place for students to go after school and help with homework. Then district has also partnered with other nonprofits to help provide food for students over school breaks and weekends and even create a rodeo for special needs students.

The district is also focusing on teaching its students the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in life and the workplace, Gonzales said. For the first time this year, the district has been able to place a counselor in each of its middle schools. The district has applied for a state Safer Schools grant that, if approved, would allow the district to hire 12 more counselors.

At the same time, the district is partnering with Casa Grande Union High School District on ways to prepare middle schoolers for the transition to high school.

The district is also investing in professional learning for its teachers, Gonzales said. Teachers have volunteered and the district has supported their work in becoming Google Suite certified, seeking out professional training programs at places like the Arizona Science Center on their own time and developing the Math for Change program.

Google Suite, or G Suite, is a series of word processing, spreadsheet and other office programs created by Google and includes programs such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Sheets and Google Slides, a presentation program. A number of schools and businesses use G Suite.

The Math for Change program is unique to the district, Gonzales said. It consists of a group of teachers who came together voluntarily to create a new math curriculum that incorporates math into nearly every subject. The district has a similar program for reading.

The district is also facing challenges in enrollment numbers, she said. The district has plans to create a task force made up of teachers, staff, administrators, parents, local officials and the public to address the issue. That task force will make a recommendation to the district board in December.

“As our community changes and grows, we want to be ready,” she said.

Any changes to district school enrollment boundaries will be made during the 2020-21 school year in order to allow students who may have to move to a new school a chance to say goodbye to their old school, Gonzales said.

A statewide teacher shortage has also had an impact on the district, she said. The district is doing more and working harder to attract quality teachers to the district, including creating the position of coordinator of new teacher learning. That person is responsible for making new teachers feel welcome, shepherding them through the new hire process and making sure they get the support they need in the early years of their career.

Gonzales said while the district has made many improvements, it still has work to do on getting students proficient in state requirements, hiring and keeping quality teachers and staff and making repairs to its buildings.