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Sequoia Pathway students protest abrupt firing of math teacher

MARICOPA — Students from a Maricopa charter school organized a protest on Monday morning in solidarity with a teacher they say was unjustifiably fired.

The protest took place around 7:30 a.m. Monday outside Sequoia Pathways Academy, just days after students said they were told after school that math teacher Kevin Struble had been fired.

Alyssa Coryell, a junior at the high school, said students found out when a message was posted on a school discussion page Friday. The news quickly spread through Snapchat, and by that evening, a walkout had already been planned.

Sequoia Pathways Protest 10/21/19

The students gathered just outside the campus as parents dropped their kids off at school. Many vehicles honked in apparent solidarity when they drove past the sign-waving protesters.

Coryell said she was shocked when she learned the news, as Struble had been teaching her Algebra II class just that day. But she was even more surprised when she was told it was due to low test scores and attendance issues.

“It didn’t make any sense at all,” she said. “Most of us have known him for such a long time. He taught a lot of us in fifth grade, so he followed us through middle school and high school. Personally, he’s been such a strong advocate in the classroom because I struggle at math and he’s always been there for me.”

Tensions between students and the school’s charter company, Edkey, grew even higher after students saw a tweet from Edkey CEO Mark Plitzuweit discussing the need for schools to expect more than mediocre teachers, with Coryell saying she took this as a slight against Struble. There was immediate backlash against the tweet, and Plitzuweit’s Twitter account is now private.

Plitzuweit told PinalCentral Edkey has a policy not to comment on personnel matters unless an employee signs off on the release of their personnel file. He did, however, say that his tweet was not directed at any single person, but was actually part of a longer train of thought about education performance in general.

“Last evening’s tweet about mediocre teachers was in no way aimed at anyone in particular,” he followed up on Saturday. “It was an appeal to all educational professionals to transcend above mediocrity and low expectations, which I have stood by since Day 1. This is a basic concept that created school choice. Based on the sheer number of amazing staff that we have within the Edkey Inc. family and the rejection of those two items, we have seen marked improvement across the organization in student outcomes and growth. As CEO, I support all of our great employees across all Edkey schools.”

Coryell, who is an athlete at Pathway, said when she was at the school for practice on Saturday, she saw a group of teachers surrounding Struble’s classroom, helping him pack up his belongings. She said the teachers she had talked to have shown support for their former co-worker.

This was actually the second such walkout that she has participated in during her time at Pathway. In 2015, students held protests following the dismissal of 7-12 Principal Diane Silvia and Dean of Students Nate Lamma. Edkey quickly changed course and reinstated the two administrators just days later.

Coryell isn’t sure if this walkout will lead to the same result. What’s more, she said, if she were in Struble’s shoes, she's not sure if she would even want to come back if she were offered the job.

“I’m just hoping that we can let the CEO or whoever shows up know the impact Mr. Struble has had on us,” she said. “He’s not a mediocre teacher at all. Of all the teachers I’ve had, he’s been the best. He always helps. He stays after-school to work with us.”

While Plitzuweit said he could not offer any details about Struble’s employment or lack thereof, he wants those who are upset about the situation to “think critically about what has happened."

“It is the first week of the second quarter,” he said. “There are approximately 1,500 open teaching positions statewide. The hardest positions to fill are certified math, science and special education. We have a few long-term substitutes already at Sequoia Pathway, more than at any of our other locations. How many possibilities are there that could cause something like this to happen?”

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MUSD proposes in-school alternative to long-term suspensions

MARICOPA — School policies aim to keep kids in the classroom as much as possible, but when student behavior leaves them little choice, it takes some creativity to live up to that goal.

The Maricopa Unified School District last week introduced a proposal that would provide alternatives to long-term suspensions where students could still progress with their education in a place isolated from the rest of the student body.

Wade Watson, the district’s director of curriculum, said students who commit major infractions that would currently force them to miss either a semester or a full year of school could be eligible for an alternative if the plan is approved by the governing board.

Under the plan, when a student is recommended for a long-term suspension, the superintendent or a designated administrator would review the case to see if the student would be eligible for the alternative. If they are deemed eligible, they and a parent would have to sign a letter admitting guilt.

Should the student make it through that process, they would be assigned to a designated location with assigned coursework, with teachers monitoring progress. They will take core classes only, and will not receive transportation or be allowed to participate in any school functions, such as school lunches or games.

The courses would be taken via the school’s online program, much like Ram Academy.

Board member Patti Coutre raised concerns about the students’ ability to continue their education during in-school suspension, since they will be uprooted from their class in the middle of the year. She noted many of the students who are suspended do not have high GPA, and need teachers present who will be able to help them not fall even further behind.

“I don’t want them to get more frustrated,” Coutre said. “Because if that happens, they’ll just stop coming.”

Watson said the teachers monitoring the program at MHS will likely be a certified teacher from the Ram Academy alternative high school, while the middle school program will be staffed by classified staff with the regular check-in from certified teachers.

If everything is approved, Watson would like to start the alternative suspensions in January. There are still plenty of details to work out, such as the terms over attendance and class preparedness before a student is kicked out of the alternative suspension. There could also be a way to require community service in order to be accepted, with board members floating the idea of working with Municipal Judge Lyle Riggs on a program.

There was no vocal opposition from the governing board that this program should be implemented.

“I am excited that we are able to offer opportunities for all of our students to be successful,” said board member Torri Anderson. “I have been a proponent of an alternative program since I’ve been a teacher at the high school. We’re one of the few high school that don’t have an alternative program.”

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Maricopa begins process of unifying residential trash pickup

MARICOPA — A key inefficiency that can come from a new city could be on its way to getting cleaned up.

The city of Maricopa is opening a bidding process for companies to become the sole resident waste pickup vendor inside its limits. That process will take up the next several months, and the results of the bids will be brought before council to see if they want to move forward with the change in the system.

Currently, every homeowner association is responsible for creating its own contract with a waste pickup company, which means service providers can vary from subdivision to subdivision. This also leaves each HOA with the burden of managing trash contracts.

For those who don’t live in such a neighborhood, like the Heritage District, the current model is even more inefficient. Each residence is responsible for its own trash service, and thus must choose the provider. This can lead to a situation where two houses using one company such as Waste Management can sandwich another property that uses Right Away Disposal. And yet, everyone has to pay for those trucks’ mileage.

The city aims to streamline the process by contracting once company for every residence in the city. Officials believe that doing so would relieve the burden from the HOA’s while lowering rates for HOA residents and making life easier for people in the Heritage District.

“This is something that is going to benefit everybody, but it’s especially going to benefit those living in non-HOA areas,” said Councilwoman Nancy Smith. “It’s very important.”

City Manager Rick Horst said the request for bids is being left intentionally open for interpretation in order for the city to get a grasp about what different levels of service would cost. The proposals could include regular bulk trash pick-up like many HOAs enjoy now, for example, or they could simply offer bulk trash requests.

Once all those proposals are in, the city and council will then decide which plan gives residents the most for their buck. Horst said if the proposals don’t actually present significant savings, they could always stick with the status quo. Horst said HOAs will be providing data to the city so officials can compare the options as accurately as possible.

“We currently have vendors who are not meeting the statutory requirements of this city,” Horst said. “We’re looking to bring parity to this process so everyone is treated as equals.”

He added that state statutes give cities the right to utilize the same waste company throughout its limits, meaning that if they sign a contract, every HOA would be obligated to switch to that company.

If a contract is signed, residents would still be billed directly by the company. If it is the company a resident currently uses, that could be as simple as just changing an account number. If it’s a different company, they will be transferred over and likely will have to exchange trash bins.

Mayor Christian Price expressed some skepticism over whether a full re-vamp is the way to go, but said he wants to see all the options before making a change. One possibility he raised is to have a contract that would just apply for the Heritage District without impacting the other neighborhoods.

“We’re gonna have to really do our job of selling this to the public that it really is a benefit,” Price said. “I don’t want my skepticism to derail the process of trying to find a benefit here, but we do need to prove that it is in fact a benefit.”

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Train buffs turn out to see historic 'Big Boy' in Pinal
 mstaude  / 

CASA GRANDE — When Paul Schubert, 82, and Jerry Eighmey, 79, were children, they often played with trains and dreamed of a life riding the rails.

“I kept a toy track under my bed and pulled it out and played with it all the time,” Eighmey said.

The two men from Prescott were among those lined along the Union Pacific railroad tracks near West Main Avenue on Wednesday afternoon waiting in the sun for the historic Big Boy steam engine to roll into Casa Grande.

“It’s a special train. It’s a piece of history,” Eighmey said.

Schubert said the opportunity to see the train in motion was a “goose pimple moment.”

“I want to see it in motion and I want to see it static so we got here early to find a place as close to the tracks as possible,” he said.

The two planned their visit to Casa Grande as soon as they learned the train would pass through Arizona on its heritage tour.

Eighmey’s stepdaughter, Terri Logue, and her family live in Casa Grande.

Although Schubert and Eighmey have seen plenty of trains throughout their lives, and had taken several trips via rail, they’d never seen the Big Boy.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this train that was such a big part of history” Eighmey said.

Union Pacific Steam Locomotive Big Boy No. 4014

Around the “Blue Barn” just south of the tracks in Maricopa, a large crowd gathered, with many waiting over an hour for a 15-second glimpse of the train, just as they did in regular intervals all along the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway.

The Maricopa Police Department sent out a warning on Facebook warning people to keep a safe, 25-foot distance between themselves and the tracks, but many people wanted as close a look at history as possible. Kids of all ages were thrust on their parents’ shoulders, the local food bank used a truck lift to get a good view, and photographers lined the way to get their once-in-a-lifetime photos.

When the train zoomed past, it was met with cheers and waves. It appeared someone on the train was waving back, though it turned out he just wanted everyone to move away from the tracks.

Lynda and Ray Richardson also made a special trip to Casa Grande to see the train. Although they have been spending their winters in Casa Grande for 14 years, they usually arrive later in the season.

“We came earlier this year just to see the train,” Lynda Richardson said.

Ray Richardson, 74, grew up around trains and is a self-described train buff. His father worked as a tower operator for Pennsylvania Railroad. But he’d never seen the Big Boy.

“I love everything about steam engines,” Richardson said. “They’re so different from their modern day counterparts. They capture all the senses with smoke, sound, size. Each engine has its own personality.”

Lynda, who enjoys history, said she appreciates Big Boy’s history as a World War II-era train.

“The Big Boy is a war hero and a veteran,” she said.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad. The heritage tour is part of the celebration.

Several members of the Chandler-based Model A Restorers of Arizona drove their vintage Fords to see the train. They parked near the overpass on Main Avenue.

“The Big Boy isn’t something you can see every day,” said Lois Cook, a member of the group

Twenty-five Big Boy steam locomotives — named for their size of 132-feet in length and about 1.2 million pounds — were made for Union Pacific in the 1940s and ’50s.

“During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the most modern and powerful steam locomotives ever built. Among them were the famous Big Boys, the largest steam locomotives in the world,” UP’s website says.

Locomotive No. 4014 is the only operating Big Boy. It was delivered to Union Pacific in 1941 and was retired in 1961 after traveling more than 1 million miles, according to the railroad’s website.

It underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration in 2013 and was returned to service to celebrate the company’s 150-year anniversary.

The train was expected to arrive in Casa Grande at about 2:45 p.m. Wednesday after passing through Maricopa. But it was delayed by nearly two hours.

Cindy and John Scott of Casa Grande arrived at their parking spot along Main Avenue at about 2:30.

“My father would have given an arm and a leg to see this train. He was such a train buff,” Cindy Scott said. “It’s so historical and there is a such romance surrounding steam engine trains that we haven’t seen since the Big Boy era.”

But the train may be a symbol of a bygone era.

Casa Grande resident Niki Felix was excited to see the train and tried to encourage her children and grandchildren to see it with her. They weren’t interested.

“I just couldn’t get them to come out and see it with me,” she said.

The train is expected to depart Casa Grande at 8 a.m. Thursday. Those who wish to see it can see it as it passes from its stop near Wilson and First streets and travels out of town.

It’s set to arrive in Tucson around 10:10 Thursday morning.


Staff Writer Joey Chenoweth contributed to this story.