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2019 Casa Grande letter grades show some gains, losses

CASA GRANDE — Letter grades for Casa Grande schools improved slightly over last year but there’s still room for improvement, according to the superintendents from Casa Grande Union High School and Casa Grande Elementary School districts.

The State Board of Education released preliminary letter grades for schools on Friday. The grades will not be finalized until all of the appeals filed by schools are resolved in December or January.

Casa Grande Elementary School District had four schools move up a grade, five stay at the same grade and three drop a grade this year. The majority of the letter grades fell within the C range with a couple of B’s and three D’s. The district also had one school, Cottonwood Elementary, receive an F.

“Overall, the letter grades achieved by our district demonstrate a continued need for improvement,” said CGESD Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales. “As superintendent of our district, I have high expectations for each of our schools, and want all of our schools to receive grades of A or B. Our educators and students work very hard, and these grades don’t reflect their effort or their worth.”

She said the grades are a call for improvement in the district.

Gonzales said three of the district’s schools were very close to reaching the next letter grade up. Villago Middle School and Saguaro Elementary School were within three points of earning a B and Cactus Middle School was one point away from a C.

The district plans to appeal the D that Ironwood Elementary School received, she said.

“Ironwood demonstrates scores that differ so significantly from the two previous years that we believe this year’s score and grade to be an anomaly,” she said.

Gonzales said the schools that saw improvement in their letter grades this year have implemented the district’s new math and literacy programs that incorporate math and reading into nearly every subject that students take. The teachers are also making the most of the district’s support for professional development classes and coaching.

All of the district’s schools have an Integrated Action Plan that identifies areas that are in need of improvement at each school, she said. The plans are updated throughout the year.

“Our district will continue to work with every school, including those that went down a grade, in their efforts to attain their specific IAP goals,” Gonzales said.

Casa Grande Union High School District saw Casa Grande Union High School improve one letter grade to a B and Vista Grande High stay at a C.

Superintendent Steve Bebee said Casa Grande Union improved by 9.54 percentage points over last year’s letter grade of a C.

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As CG 7th grader battles cancer, family and friends rally in support
 mstaude  / 

CASA GRANDE — Seventh grader Jezmond Burns, 13, was still settling into her first week of a new school year when, in early August, she went to the emergency room for what everyone assumed would likely be a kidney stone.

A few hours later, after four large abdominal masses were discovered, she was transferred to Phoenix Children’s Hospital with a diagnosis that would change her life.

A biopsy later confirmed the seventh grader was suffering from Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma that was impacting soft tissue in her cervical and diaphragm regions. This week, she started her fifth round of chemotherapy.

“She’s holding up as well as can be expected,” her mother, Jessica Horn-Carter, said. “She is extremely fatigued. Part of the cancer ate away and corroded part of her spine. Much of her pain stems from that alone. After this round of chemo, she will get more scans done to tell what type of progress has been made, we are obviously praying for the best but we also do know radiation is a possibility.”

As the teen battles through the disease, area friends have rallied around her, some raising money and some visiting to show support.

“She has had several friends come and literally just sit bedside to visit with her, which at the middle school age we call ‘friendship goals,’” Horn-Carter said. “She misses all of her classmates at Villago (Middle School).”

Family friend Vanessa Lopez has started a fundraiser for the teen and her family to help with expenses.

“I’m just trying to find a way to get the word out to help her mother Jessica financially through this difficult time, especially during the holiday season, not being able to work, with four children,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s 11-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, cut her hair and donated it to provide hair for a wig for Jezmond.

Jezmond has three brothers, including a twin. She and her twin brother, Jayson, were born at a gestational age of 28 weeks, weighing in at only about 2 pounds each.

“They are both miracle babies,” Horn-Carter said. “Both twins had complications and beat all odds during that difficult time. We had no idea and never expected to have to watch Jez fight this now.”

She said she and her family, including her husband, Quindy Carter, and Jezmond’s father, Jason Burns, appreciate prayers of support, words of encouragement and assistance their family and friends have offered.

Horn-Carter described Jezmond as a “very sweet, gentle soul.”

“Being the only girl and the oldest of four siblings (by one minute), she has the mother-hen mentality and even in her sickness, tries her best to help out with her younger brothers, which we know is key to helping keep her mind busy,” she said.

The seventh grader is currently on a medical leave from school but keeps up with her school work.

Jezmond, whose favorite color is pink, is especially close with her grandmother.

“Her grandma has played a huge role in helping keep the positivity flowing,” Horn-Carter said.

Horn-Carter manages a radiology clinic but has taken a leave of absence to be with her daughter full-time during her battle with cancer.

As the holidays approach, she said the family is focused on staying positive and keeping the teen’s spirits high.

“She’s a fighter and we stand behind her,” Lopez said. “As she and her family anxiously await follow-up scan results at the end of this month to confirm the tumors are shrinking and responding to treatment, we want to ease the family’s mind of unexpected expenses.”

Those who wish to show support online for Jezmond may use the hashtag #JezTheChamp. Donations may be made through Venmo @jezthechamp or using the CashApp, $jezthechamp. For more information, visit Horn-Carter’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/jessica.horn.796.

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Superior woman pleads guilty to second-degree murder in deaths of children left in car
 jheadley  / 

FLORENCE — With her murder trial just a month away, Brittany Velasquez accepted a plea agreement from Pinal County prosecutors Monday.

The 22-year-old woman is accused of killing her two young children by leaving them unattended in a car for hours in Superior in March 2018.

Monday, Velasquez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and child abuse. The presumptive sentence for the murder charge is 20 years imprisonment with a term of 13 to 35 years possible. The child abuse charge was amended into a Class 2 felony with a presumptive sentence of 10 years and a sentencing range of five to 15 years possible.

Prosecutors dropped an additional murder and child abuse charge against her in the agreement.

Velasquez will likely serve 20 years in prison for her children’s deaths and will be on probation for the rest of her life, based on the plea agreement.

She was arrested in March 2018 after her 2-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter died from being left in a vehicle for hours. Autopsy reports show the children died from exposure and no signs of trauma were observed on their bodies.

According to public records, Velasquez allegedly told her grandmother she was taking her children to the park on the afternoon of March 25. It’s unknown what she actually did during that time.

The following morning, Velasquez told authorities she dropped the kids off with someone else before going to work. She didn’t return to Superior until 11 p.m. That’s when she reported finding her children unresponsive inside a vehicle.

She accused someone else of bringing the kids back to her house and planting them inside a car, according to a probable-cause statement.

According to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, there had been at least two prior incidents of Velasquez leaving a child unattended in a parked car for a prolonged period of time.

Velasquez remains detained at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center without bond and is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 10.