October 5, 2005 - Three months into his new job as superintendent of Marana schools, Denny Dearden is already calling the shots to try turning a good school district into a great school district.

Under his leadership, the Marana Unified School District has initiated a large-scale strategic planning process that will identify priorities and goals for the district during the next five years and allow school officials to efficiently tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Gearing up for this process, four interim school leaders were recently appointed to permanent positions. Jan Truitt will permanently fill the role of assistant superintendent as Jim Doty replaces her position at the helm of Marana High School. Michelle Poppen will fill the role of assistant principal alongside Doty, and James Butler will serve as coordinator of community schools and district learning.

"My thought was, 'We've got good people in place, I've worked with them three months and we needed to lift those interim tags and move forward,'" said Dearden, who has big plans for the growing district with 17 schools and 13,000 students.

Truitt was made interim assistant superintendent following the December 2004 resignation of Ron Rickel, which created a domino effect that allowed Doty and Poppen to step into their current positions. Butler stepped into his position after the resignation of Larry Casoni.

Since Dearden came aboard in July, the district has shifted to a cluster management system in which Truitt oversees the subsystem of schools that feed students into Mountain View High School while Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Dumler is in charge of the Marana High School cluster.

Acknowledging that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, Dearden has taken measures to bring more voices to the conversation on district issues. When more people are involved, he said, "good districts become great districts."

"This is a big district now. It's not a small district where maybe two or three people can make all of the decisions, so I have expanded our leadership team to include a lot of people and we meet weekly," Dearden said. "Just bringing more voices - the collective wisdom of a lot of people working together is pretty powerful."

Dearden said that when he first arrived it was evident that the district needed to start a strategic planning process. He has titled the planning effort "Roadmap to a Renewed Excellence," which celebrates the district's past while acknowledging that further progress lies ahead.

"How do we get Marana to become a world-class school system, and who do we compare it to?" Dearden said. "Do we compare it to just our local schools, or do we compare it to the best in the nation? I would say we want to be compared to the best in the nation."

The district has hired consultant Judy Phillips of the Partnership for Excellence, who has developed a prescriptive approach to strategic planning for educational institutions. Dearden said he worked with Phillips in a previous position in Grand Junction, Colo., where a similar planning effort was successful.

"It's an exciting model," Dearden said. "It's exciting for me because I am familiar with it. I know when you get ownership in a strategic plan, when you take the time to do it, how powerful it can be."

Phillips will meet with a district-identified leadership team, also known as the Committee for Renewed Excellence, about six times throughout the school year. On Nov. 1 and 2, she's expected to start training a team of about 60 to 70 individuals, which includes business people, community members, support staff, teachers and administrators.

Dearden said the team will be trained to venture into the community to gather input, which will be used to establish a set of priorities for the district. Once those priorities are identified, the district will develop specific goals, measures and a plan of action, with hopes of having a strategic plan ready by the end of this school year.

"Once we identify, as a community, our district priorities and goals, it really should drive all our decision making in terms of how we operate in this system," Dearden said.

Bill Kuhn, school board president, emphasized that community members will be the ones identifying where they want to see the district go and how it will get there.

"By starting with the community input and building up, we hope to get a plan that will help guide us five years out," he said, adding that meeting state and federal education standards likely will be addressed as well.

"As you know, the standards keep getting tougher, so what do we have to do to maintain the progress of our students?" Kuhn said. "We're going to revisit a lot of different areas that we've dealt with in the past and, I assume, some we haven't dealt with. It's one of these things that's going to take a while. It's not going to be done in a weekend."

Dearden said he's hesitant to give his opinion right now about what challenges the district faces or needs to address, but he acknowledged that growth is an issue school officials must be prepared to handle. He said the district must stay competitive in the market for both teachers and support staff.

"I've identified some (issues) but I'm really reluctant to go out and tell people, 'This is what we have to do,' because I want them to identify the same things," he said. "I think, when it's all said and done, we'll all identify pretty much the same things and that will be the power of it. But certainly growth issues. This is a district that's growing by the day."

The Arizona Department of Education released the Adequate Yearly Progress determinations for Arizona schools in September, a requirement of No Child Left Behind. The reports show that the district, which hadn't met AYP requirements in the past two school years, met the federal requirements for the 2004-05 school year, passing in every category with the exception of Marana Middle School, which did not meet test objectives and did not make AYP.

"Every year the bar raises and we have to be prepared for that," Dearden said. "We can say we have seven A+ schools, three National Blue Ribbon schools, but we have to think further than that. Complacency is not an option. We have to be visionary. We have to be proactive, and this district is primed to do this right now."

Since Dearden came aboard, the district has moved its regular school board meetings to a new centralized location inside the Marana Municipal Complex, 11555 W. Civic Center Drive. The meetings, now held on the second and fourth Thursday of every month at 7 p.m., have traditionally moved around to various schools in the district, a practice Kuhn had strongly supported.

"The district came and visited everybody. Not just to look at the schools during the daytime or attend a play, but just to be there and conduct business in their presence if they wanted to be there," Kuhn said. "For example, Roadrunner always had a great turnout. And even if they didn't stay for the whole meeting, it wasn't the point. They got a chance to say 'hello' to us and, if they had some concerns, to express them to us.

"I'll have to give it a little bit more time and then come up with a definitive opinion," Kuhn said commenting on the location change. "If after a few months I'm still not comfortable, I could bring it up again … The only question is how far away is it from everybody?"

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