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PPEP Tec encourages at-risk kids to graduate
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CASA GRANDE — On a busy Tuesday morning, Casa Grande resident and longtime educator Tad Roberts stood before a group of about 35 PPEP Tec High School students, holding his weathered 1973 college diploma in his hands.

“No one stopped me from getting this,” he told the students. “And nothing should stop you from getting your education.”

For the PPEP Tec students, who often face significant challenges in obtaining a high school diploma, the message was an important one to hear.

“A lot of our kids come to us after having a negative school experience with more than one school. Some have been thrown out by the system and are so far behind that they might be ready to throw their hands up and give up,” said school Principal James Simmons. “

mstaude / Melissa St. Aude/PinalCentral  

Principal James Simmons says his goal is to hand each student at PPEP Tec a high school diploma.

The Casa Grande Alice S. Paul Learning Center is one of six PPEP Tec schools statewide focused on reaching students in danger of not graduating. And it takes an unusual approach to getting students caught up on missing credits, keeping them motivated and ensuring that they end their schooling with a high school diploma.

About 85 students are currently enrolled at the Casa Grande campus, and Simmons said his goal is to hand each one a high school diploma.

“It gives me great satisfaction to call out their names at graduation,” Simmons said.

PPEP Tec is an accredited high school. Students generally work at four credits each quarter or can work faster if they choose.

“They can work at an accelerated pace if they want to,” Simmons said.

With fewer than 20 students in each classroom, they receive personalized attention.

Each student has a mentor who works to move them toward success. If a student is absent for an extended period of time, school personnel reach out, often making home visits.

“We visit them at home and at work and also send positive notes home to their parents,” Simmons said. “We reach out to let them know we care.”

Tutoring is available for students who need it and it’s not uncommon for a student to pop into Simmons’ office asking for help.

Knowing that some kids need to work, school social worker Tori Boremi is often out in the community, building relationships with potential employers and following up with students when they find a job.

Last year, Simmons started a new student of the month club, recognizing teens for their efforts and rewarding one teen each month with a gift card.

“I’ve had calls from parents crying because their kid won something. We like for our interactions with the parents to be positive,” Simmons said.

He hopes to change the perspective that the school’s students are only at-risk teens. Some students choose the school for various reasons.

“We are a good school. We have kids who are great students but they don’t want to be in a large school with thousands of students or they might want to work at their own pace,” Simmons said. “We don’t want people to think of us as an alternative school but as a school with a family environment and a team atmosphere.”

The school encourages students to consider college and has several who are dual-enrolled at PPEP Tec and Central Arizona College. Students may also take classes at Central Arizona Valley Institute of Technology.

Bringing in guest speakers, including Roberts, is also one way of ensuring students receive the message that they need to stay in school.

Roberts, who has a master’s degree, was the first in his family to graduate from college. He had a long career in education, including as a guidance counselor, dropout prevention liaison and also as a probation officer.

He told the students that although he didn’t enjoy sitting in a school classroom, he liked learning and was determined to complete his educational goals.

“To me, education is the door that opens everything,” he said. “Some of these kids might become the first in their family to get a high school diploma. It could break the cycle. I can’t heal the world, but if I can inspire one child to stay in school, I feel I’ve been successful.”

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Sinema talks infrastructure, water with Pinal County leaders
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CASA GRANDE — Water concerns and highway expansion highlighted the issues raised by a panel of area leaders during a roundtable discussion Wednesday afternoon with U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Although some mayors present mentioned bringing new water to the county, Maricopa Mayor Christian Price asked for help to keep it off the roads. Funding for flood prevention within Pinal County and Arizona overall became a surprising topic of conversation.

“I explained to colleagues we don’t get a lot of water in Arizona,” Sinema said, “but when it does come, it comes real fast and there’s nowhere for it to go.”

Sinema spent an hour with representatives from Pinal County, including the Gila River Indian Community, at City Hall in Casa Grande. During the meeting, Sinema both highlighted what was relevant to Pinal within the recently passed infrastructure bill and gave those present an opportunity to outline their priorities for spending on local projects.

Although Sinema implored those present to follow up with her team to hammer out more specific funding amounts, Price mentioned working closely with GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis and Rep. Greg Stanton for $150 million in the House version of the bill to fund a project for safe floodwater channeling.

Sinema touted the bipartisan character of the bill, which was primarily negotiated between a group of 10 Republican and Democratic senators, including Sinema, over the past five months. Sinema also called the bill “a huge win for Arizona” and said the bill would mean the largest investment in the nation’s infrastructure in over 100 years.

“Infrastructure is not Democratic or Republican,” Sinema said. “Everybody uses broadband, everybody uses airports.”

Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland told Sinema that most of the cities and towns in western Pinal County work closely together as they have interconnected needs. McFarland cited the need to widen Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Casa Grande as well as for “last mile” broadband connections to area homes.

McFarland also raised to Sinema the importance of funding “anything water”: finding new sources via pipelines or desalination, or otherwise alleviating the burden on county farmers, who are set to be impacted first from shortages within the Colorado River Basin.

Some specific items in the bill that have local impacts include funding for all authorized Indian water settlements, fully funded broadband needs and money for water storage projects in the West. Sinema also noted that the bill is meant to address protection against climate and weather concerns such as wildfires.

Lewis thanked Sinema for including “critical” items for Indian communities in the bill, citing a “historic” level of funding between the recent bill and the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We are a good investment,” Lewis said. “Our community has always been innovative and forward thinking on how to utilize federal funds, not just for GRIC but for the surrounding area.”

Lewis cited the example of new schools and mobile vaccination units as serving area needs.

Sinema mentioned that in every county she’s visited recently, including Yuma and Cochise, leaders mentioned concerns about water, and told those present her team would go into a “deep dive” on how to address pervasive water issues in Arizona and the entire Southwest.

“I’m hearing word-for-word the same fears around water,” Sinema said. “Just substitute Yuma lettuce for Pinal cotton.”

The bill also provides $5.3 billion to the Arizona Department of Transportation to include improvements along I-10 as well as upgrades to four regional airports: Casa Grande Municipal, Coolidge, Eloy and Ak-Chin.

The bipartisan bill, the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, passed with 69 votes in the Senate on Aug. 10. The bill calls for over $550 billion in new spending without raising any new taxes.

Democrats in Congress are trying to pass a second planned infrastructure bill that calls for significantly more spending, through the budget reconciliation process, which was not discussed. Sinema has publicly criticized the second bill’s proposed $3.5 trillion price tag.

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Banner making 'day-to-day' decisions on admitting patients due to COVID surge
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PHOENIX — Facing a surge of patients, COVID and otherwise, the state’s largest hospital chain is providing care in hallways, waiting rooms and even ambulances during surges and is making “day-by-day decisions” on admitting patients for elective surgeries, its chief clinical officer reported Wednesday.

The announcement from Dr. Marjorie Bessel said that a quarter of all beds at Banner Health facilities are occupied by patients with COVID-19. That figure parallels what other hospitals in Arizona are reporting to the Department of Health Services.

That is still less than at the peak last year when COVID patients filled more than half the beds.

But Bessel said part of what’s different now — and what is causing complications — is “an unseasonably high volume of non-COVID patients.”

“At this time it is very difficult to predict when this surge will subside,” she said.

And there’s something else. Bessell said many patients are those who delayed care during the past 17 months due to the pandemic.

“They are now seeking care for illnesses and medical issues that have become more severe,” she said.

“We are seeing patients with advanced heart issues, late-stage cancer and injuries that require more extensive surgical and procedural care to correct,” Bessel explained. And that is on top of the COVID patients.

“Please remember these COVID patients require much more attention and care,” she said.

That, in turn, relates to what is coming in the door — and how and where treatment can be provided — as Bessel was asked where care is being provided.

“At this time, we remain open and a safe place for care,” she responded. “And yet, it is requiring us to deliver care in ways that are different than our absolute usual and normal.”

So what does that involve?

“Decisions on how best to care for patients are made on an hour-by-hour basis,” a hospital representative said later when pressed for specifics. “Care provided in hallways, ambulances and waiting rooms can occur during our surges.”

But the hospital said it does not gather or track data related to any of that.

Holly Ward, marketing and communications director for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said the problem is not unique to Banner.

“We hear reports of a large amount of ‘patient holds,’ meaning patients are waiting in the emergency department or an overflow unit awaiting an inpatient bed,” she said.

All this is part of a larger trend in COVID-19.

Bessel said most of the patients are in the 20- to 60-year-old range. That, she said, is in sharp contrast with early in the pandemic when it was seniors — those 65 and up — filling up the beds.

“We believe that this, of course, is directly related to the vaccination rates of those that are in that age group of 65-plus,” she said, who were early priorities and have a rate that is “quite high.” And she used that factor to prompt others to roll up their sleeves.

In the meantime, Banner — and other hospitals — have to deal with patients filling up beds. And that goes to the question of the ability of patients to get “elective surgeries.”

Last year, facing high occupancy rates at hospitals, Gov. Doug Ducey ordered the facilities to halt elective procedures to preserve bed space for patients with COVID and other ailments that required immediate care.

Ward said at the time that the hospitals agreed with the governor’s order.

“However, it is having dire financial consequences,” she said, with hospitals losing revenue from more lucrative procedures such as knee surgeries and hip replacements. “That’s a lot of financial bleeding that’s happening.”

Ducey subsequently rescinded his order. But now hospitals officials may find they have to take the same measures on their own.

“It is possible that we would need to curtail elective surgeries and procedures in the future,” Bessel said, whatever the financial considerations.

“Absolutely, those are a revenue source for all health care systems,” she said. “Banner Health is no different than any other health care system.”

Still, Bessel said, curbing those procedures is not a move Banner wants to make.

“Our intent, especially as a not-for-profit organization providing a lot of care in the states where we operate is to be available for everybody,” she said. “The financial impact of not being able to provide elective surgeries does not go into any of our decision making.”

What does affect those decisions, Bessel said, is the capacity of the hospital to provide care for those elective patients while also dealing with the surge of COVID patients.

“So while it is financially disadvantageous to not have surgeries be offered, I want to make sure that it’s very clear that that is not the driving decision maker for us,” she said.

In Pinal County, Banner owns and operates Banner Casa Grande Medical Center, Banner Ironwood Medical Center in San Tan Valley, Banner Goldfield Medical Center in Apache Junction and Banner Health Center in the city of Maricopa.