Learning goes on in Apache Junction, just not in school district classrooms

By Sally Marks
Posted 4/16/20

Whether it’s with online options such as Google Classroom via Chromebooks or printing the alphabet with chalk on a sidewalk, Apache Junction students, parents and teachers from pre-K to grade …

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Learning goes on in Apache Junction, just not in school district classrooms


Whether it’s with online options such as Google Classroom via Chromebooks or printing the alphabet with chalk on a sidewalk, Apache Junction students, parents and teachers from pre-K to grade 12 are using a variety of tools to connect, teach and continue classroom learning during the state-wide school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apache Junction Unified School District and school districts across the world are meeting the challenge to stay at home while continuing the educational process. At AJUSD, students in grade seven through 12 are using Chromebooks, home computers and smart phones to engage with their teachers and fellow students and turn in assignments.

Even with the challenge of distance learning, there have been success stories.

Lydia Henry, an award-winning math teacher at Cactus Canyon Junior High School, 801 W. Southern Ave. in Apache Junction, offers an optimistic report.

“I was so proud of how many students submitted work and really tried to do everything I asked of them. Sixty seven percent of my third hour responded to activities or IXL, and one student in my Honors Algebra 1 class got the challenge activity correct. The answer was, “The total mass of all humans in the world is about 10 times the total mass of all ants.”

Marie Wilbur Bowers, who teaches seventh grade science at Cactus Canyon Junior High School, 801 W. Southern Ave. in Apache Junction, feels a mixture of emotions from pride to sadness during the closure.

“Hearing from students and communicating back and forth is the brightest spot of my day. I work so hard to build relationships with these young adults and I miss them terribly.”

There is a silver lining to the stay-at-home order. Creativity is blooming like wildflowers in the desert.

In addition to classroom connections, Claire Williamson, who teaches history and is the advisor for student council at Apache Junction High School, 2525 S. Ironwood Drive, provides weekly spirit activities such as chalk art where students and their families are encouraged to create artwork and positive messages for others to enjoy.

AJHS Principal Chris Lineberry has turned into an academic podcaster to reach out to staff, students and the community. His podcasts are broadcast weekly and his fan base has increased to 400 subscribers.

CCJH Principal Chad Cantrell will be one of the next guests on the show. Taking over the broadcast duties at the junior high, Assistant Principal Kenneth deLoera puts out a morning announcement video every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which includes the same type of announcements as before the closure, but now includes important updates about the free curbside meal program, Chromebook distribution, yearbook sales, census, etc.

“I try to end it by highlighting ways for students to stay connected,” said Mr. deLoera, who is also known as Mr. D. “I have posted student work from their classes, staff participating in the ChalkYourWalk and even the Bear Hunt. I try to keep it short and upbeat. My goal is to try and keep students engaged with the school.”

Not to be outdone, elementary school principals Pat Smith, Desert Vista Elementary School, 3701 E. Broadway Ave. in Apache Junction; Phyllis Bellemare, Four Peaks Elementary School, 1785 N. Idaho Road in Apache Junction; and Natalie Clement, Peralta Trail Elementary School, 10965 E. Peralta Road in Gold Canyon have turned to YouTube to communicate with students.

Rumor has it that more than the children are enjoying stories such as “Because of Winn-Dixie” read by Mrs. Clement. Parents and students alike squeal with glee to see the school’s principal modify her voice to play different roles from the popular children’s story. Members of Mrs. Clement’s furry family (two dogs, a cat and a rabbit) have made guest appearances.

DVES students enjoy daily Mustang Minutes from Principal Smith that may include a poem, riddle, story, song, dance, as well as a positive message for hope and kindness. Staff members join the fun as well.

Since children are comforted by rituals and routines, elementary school students respond positively to engaging with their principal and teachers in everyday activities such reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mrs. Bellemare has the benefit of having a bonafide flagpole in her backyard where she hoists Old Glory into the clear, sunny, Arizona sky. Parents report how many of their children stand, hand-over-heart to recite the pledge and share a patriotic gesture with their principals, teachers and fellow classmates.

Engagement has been increasing. Mindy Carney, a kindergarten teacher at FPES, had this to say about her young students: “I have been able to contact all of my parents. Everyone has been so amazing. I had 22 out of 24 submit activities to me that they are doing at home. I am proud of my kindergarten class. They have been reading, writing, adding, subtracting, doing IXL, cooking, arts and crafts and adding PE into their day. I am proud of them.”

Robyn Gonzales, AJUSD’s educational services curriculum manager, and her staff have had to switch gears and provide resources and content to accommodate a shift from in-classroom to off-site learning.

“We have been facilitating grade-level teams as they plan relevant and engaging learning opportunities for their students and transition into the online world of education,” said Mrs. Gonzales.

“The grade level teams have worked diligently to collaborate, research both online and offline activities, and plan together to share these opportunities with our students and families. Watching the teachers come together and move into an online mode has been extremely rewarding as a fellow educator. The teams have been sharing ideas from resources they utilize regularly in the classroom but have also ventured out to discover and share additional resources. Our teams of teachers have been very intentional with finding resources that are credible and relevant. Family check-ins have become more common and teachers have shared how amazing these times have been as they miss seeing their students," she said.

Students and teachers alike are living up to the challenge.

“While treading into new territory can be stressful, our teachers have been troopers,” said Mrs. Gonzales.

“They dove right in to ensure we are doing what’s best for our students. Also, we as educators have become students, having to deepen our knowledge and understanding of what else is out there. What began as a challenge quickly turned into an opportunity, an opportunity to develop as professionals and reach students in a way very new to many of us. Having to dive right in was beneficial because everyone had to do whatever it was going to take to do what is best for our students. This entire process has been extremely rewarding. The collaboration time being spent as district grade level teams rather than campus teams has been an amazing experience and I am extremely proud of our AJUSD teachers, Title 1 specialists, academic coach, and support staff," she said.

In addition to education, school meals have been a mainstay at AJUSD. With unemployment soaring in an area that is already suffering from financial hardship, Karen Warhus, AJUSD food director and her staff have been doubling down on their efforts to provide food for the community’s children.

Curbside food service

After the school closure, AJUSD’s curbside food service program kicked into action and now provides sack meals with five days’ worth of groceries at two locations, on Mondays at AJHS and FPES.

Each sack includes frozen items that can be prepared at home. This free service is available for all children 18 years and younger. Children must be in the car to receive the items.

The meal service for the AJHS site is 10 to 11:30 a.m. Participants are asked to pull in at the drive east of the football field on Southern and follow the drive around the field to the cafeteria, just under the Davis Field sign. AJUSD food services staff will provide sacked items for every child who is in the car. The FPES service will be 10:30 a.m. to noon. Participants are asked to pull up to the student drop off driveway to receive their items. The program will continue until further notice and while supplies last.

While these food heroes don’t have capes, they are receiving home-made cloth masks from volunteers led by Rosie Portugal-Brastad, coordinator at Project Help.

Apache Junction school district staff, families make face mask coverings, shields

Mrs. Portugal-Brastad and community volunteers have donated close to 400 masks for Banner Goldfield, 30 masks to volunteers at the AJ Food Bank, as well as masks for some of the AJUSD staff.

Project Help is a program that is exclusive to AJUSD and provides families in need with help with financial assistance, food, new and gently-used clothing, and other items that are donated by corporations, churches and individuals.

Even though there are no students on the district’s campuses during the closure, the building, its equipment and grounds continue to be maintained by Larry Hill, maintenance and facilities director and his staff. In addition to routine maintenance and the security, the staff has been busy sterilizing and deep cleaning equipment and surfaces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

AJUSD’s human resources director, Susan Doyle, reports that staff retention has been high and the district is fairly well staffed. Future interviews will be conducted through electronic methods to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19. Potential applicants can view open position under employment at the school district website, ajusd.org.

Cindy Reichert, finance director, continues to work on the budget and oversee staff while they continue to pay bills, accept contributions, School Tax Credit donations and process payroll. Tax credit donation for the 2019 school year will be accepted through April 15 and donations for the 2020 school year are being accepted after that.

The Public Relations Department, headed by Sally Marks, keeps the pipeline of communication flowing with a constant stream of parent and staff communication, flyers, Facebook posts and press releases. The website is frequently updated and offers vital information from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Education, letters from the superintendent, student and parent surveys, as well as information about each of the district’s schools. Online registration is also being accepted. Current and potential AJUSD families are encouraged to visit www.ajusd.org for the latest information.

Lori Jioras, transportation director, and her staff have been focusing on professional development that concentrates on safety and enhancing positive student interactions.

When the buses roll again for the 2020-21 school year, the drivers will be rewarding elementary school students who exhibit good bus behavior a free, age-appropriate book. Some 400 books have been donated thanks to the generosity of Auxiliary Unit 27 of the American Legion. The program was the brainchild of Sharon Alley, past president of the organization. Students will have the option to keep the book or return it after they have read it.

“This is a good incentive program for our drivers to reward students who meet expectations and behave on the bus,” said Mrs. Jioras. “When students meet the expectations, the routes run more efficiently and everyone has a safer, smoother ride.”

The Technology Department, led by Renee Jackson, has been busy distributing and repairing existing equipment as well as investigating new ways to help the district provide online learning options due to the stay-at-home order that will remain in effect until after the school year ends.

The technology staff has the herculean task of developing innovative ways to maintain and provide technical support for over 3300 students and more than 400 staff while keeping within the social distancing guidelines In working remotely, staff and students can connect to school resources through the internet using diverse methods which adds a whole new layer of complexity for troubleshooting issues.

Heather Wallace, executive director for the district, has been partnering with the Technology Department to distribute computers to CCJH seventh/eighth-grade families. They opened seven handout stations for about seven hours. Staff was decked out in face masks and rubber gloves to keep everyone safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some 120 students showed up to pick up a Chromebook. Chromebooks, a mainstay in the junior high, has become even more vital due to the current shelter-in-place guidelines issue by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Every family was complimentary about what we were doing as a district and people were genuinely pleasant,” said Mrs. Wallace. “Another recent highlight was working again with technology to find a different online platform for teachers to hold online meetings with each other and with students. We are working hard to make sure we use the best platforms to fit student and teacher needs.”

The necessity to use different technologies to continue operations is also needed at the top. The AJUSD leadership team headed by Dr. Krista Anderson, superintendent, under the direction of the AJUSD Governing Board, continue to work and meet remotely to ensure student learning continues.

Beginning April 14, AJUSD Governing Board meetings will be video only to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The video will be livestreamed on AJUSD You Tube and a link to the meetings are also available on the AJUSD website under Governing Board videos.

Anyone who would like to make a public comment can fill out the comment form on the district’s website before 5 p.m. the day of the Governing Board meeting and it will be read aloud by the Governing Board President, Jodi Ehrlich.

“We understand these are challenging times, but all of us at AJUSD continue to be committed to providing the very best education possible for our students,” said Dr. Anderson. “We ask everyone --- staff, parents, students and members of the community to join us in living our motto, “Whatever it Takes” to move forward to support all the students of AJUSD.”

Editor's note: Sally Marks is AJUSD's public information officer.