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Pendergast District focuses on educational equity with ASU Prep Digital partnership

Four middle school students sit at a table in a school library logged in to a digital class, wearing headphones in front of laptops

Students at Villa de Paz Elementary School taking an ASU Prep Digital course in their library. Photo courtesy of the Pendergast Elementary School District.

April 26, 2021

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

When Angela Figueroa was a seventh grader at Westwind Elementary School, she started taking high school algebra and then geometry in eighth grade. It was a challenge, but she had the support of a great teacher and realized she had the drive and skill to succeed.

Now in her first year of high school, Figueroa is getting an A in junior-level math, Algebra II, and as she progresses she’ll have room in her class schedule to get ahead on dual enrollment, Advanced Placement or career and technical education coursework if she chooses. 

“It was a good decision that I chose to take these courses. Now that I’m in high school, the knowledge I’ve gained throughout those courses has helped me progress through my math class smoothly,” she said. “I am proud of myself, and I would definitely recommend others who are choosing to take the challenge.”

Figueroa was able to stretch her skills and get ahead in high school credits because of a four-year partnership between the Pendergast Elementary School District and ASU Prep Digital that offers high school courses to about 150 seventh and eighth graders every year in algebra, geometry and English. The partnership was announced as one of 15 first-place winners of the 2021 Magna Awards, which are given out annually by the National School Boards Association to honor districts across the country for advancing equity in education. The Pendergast partnership was selected as a winner by an independent panel of school board members, administrators and other educators.

Acting Superintendent for Pendergast Jennifer Cruz said that the partnership was launched because of the Pendergast governing board’s concern that students in the district did not have the opportunity to earn high school credit for math and English. It was important to the district to offer more options for the more than 9,000 students in Pendergast’s 12 schools: 75% of students are Latino/Hispanic, 10% are white, 8% are African American or Black, 2% are Asian and 2% are Native American or Indigenous. Pendergast schools are located in Phoenix, Glendale and Avondale.

“We want students to have space in their high school schedule for career and technical education classes, as well as be able to roll right into either dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes in high school. We need this pathway first, and we want our students to see that they can do this,” Cruz said. 

Because of how school districts are organized in Arizona, Cruz said, there’s inequity in access to high school credits for students who are ready to advance. 

“What you find is that school districts that are broken up, elementary and high school, tend to serve more diverse communities or tend to serve more students that are experiencing poverty. And one of the things that’s really important to us is that we provide equitable access to all students,” she said. 

Cruz said the district is determined to offer opportunities to their district that students in unified districts would receive. K–8 districts such as Pendergast typically don’t have access to accredited high school curriculum or teachers to offer opportunities for students to get ahead on high school credits. The partnership with ASU Prep Digital offered accredited coursework and instruction for Algebra I, Geometry and English I, taught by a certified teacher virtually across 12 schools twice a week live and asynchronously three days a week. Instruction happens during the regular school day; the Pendergast District provides staff to supervise students on-site as well as extra tutoring and skill-building to help students be successful. 

Cruz said it’s troubling to see “how little access is actually afforded to students in majority African American and Latinx communities to high school coursework.”

“If it is provided to them, it's not provided in such a structured and rigorous way to ensure that they're successful,” she said. 

Getting that head start allows students to have room in their high school schedule to then get ahead for college or career training without having to attend summer school, which is inaccessible to students who have to work to contribute to family incomes. Cruz also emphasized that success in Algebra I and English I are early indicators of high school graduation. 

Jacob Bauer, now a 16-year-old sophomore in high school, is about to finish all the math he needs for high school and start earning college credit. This is possible because he was able to take Algebra I and geometry when he was attending Garden Lakes School. 

“I think it helped a lot because now I’m in my sophomore year, and this is the last year that I need to take math. I'm already finishing my credits for that,” he said. “It really helped me advance myself, advance what I know. And I feel like I understand with everyone else. I'm taking classes with seniors right now; last year I took classes with juniors. It doesn’t feel weird. I feel good in the classes. So I think it helped a lot.”

Bauer said he can start taking classes next year for college credit, and he’s considering taking calculus. 

Students are nominated for participation by their schools, based on past performance in subject areas, teacher recommendations and demonstration of work ethic. The district meets with families to get their support and set expectations. 

Cruz said that the system allows for students who may not have been identified as “gifted” before to access the opportunity, reaching students who may not have been appropriately challenged before but have “hustle.” The participants have been wildly successful: Of the 150 middle school students who participated in the last three years, 100% passed geometry, 96% percent passed Algebra I and 90% passed English I. Currently, 140 students are on track to complete high school coursework in the 2020–21 school year.

“The team from ASU Prep Digital has been just so fantastic,” Cruz said. “What I love about them is that they’re just as bought into our kids’ success as we are. Now that’s really important if you're really going to call somebody a partner, right? That we’re all in it for the kids.”

The Pendergast partnership is one of more than 300 partnerships between school districts and ASU Prep Digital in Arizona, serving more than 7,800 teachers and 10,000 students. The partnerships provide professional development for teachers or help fill instructional gaps, in addition to building innovative and customized models based on local schools’ needs and goals.  

Feedback from parents and students has been glowing, and praise for the instructors is consistently a highlight. ASU Prep Digital math instructor CJ Raidy is often praised in the feedback. Raidy finds it inspiring to work with the Pendergast students and said that the ASU Prep Digital courses offer great one-on-one opportunities as well as the chance for students to truly work at their own pace and not feel held back. 

“I have had multiple meetings over the years where I can see an ‘aha’ moment in real time where, as a student is talking about a topic, they make a connection and demonstrate a deeper understanding. I’ve learned a few new methods for solving problems myself during these meetings!” Raidy said.  

In addition to enjoying the classes and earning credit, students report feeling excited about learning and challenging themselves and planning for their futures. Pendergast District Coordinator Caryn Hyatt said it’s exciting to see students progress in their high school coursework to see what they can accomplish and start to think about their future vocations.

“The students usually start excited but do not have a full understanding of how they're changing their lives. As the year goes on and we talk about what they’re going to do, the classes that they’re going to be able to get into as a freshman because they’ve already completed their freshman-level math, they start to get an idea of their future,” Hyatt said. 

“We’ve had programs that have come in and tried to get kids to focus on college and where they want to be, but I have not seen them be as successful as the ASU program. The kids move through the algebra and see that they can be successful, it gives them a better self-worth, a better understanding of ‘I can do this.’ As I’ve talked to kids from the past years who are in high school now, they’re thinking of jobs as mechanical engineers or going into medical fields, lots of careers that weren’t necessarily part of their thought process earlier.”

This kind of long-term learning and growth is core to ASU Prep Digital's goals.

“Fostering lifelong learners who are prepared to thrive in the future workforce is what ASU Prep is after in its design of educational models,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer of ASU Prep Digital. 

“This partnership is a great example of what we’re all about: centering students, customizing learning so that students can go at their own pace and leveraging technology to meet students’ needs, wherever they live,” Young said.

“Pendergast students are setting themselves up for success in high school and beyond — and getting valuable online learning experience at the same time. This is the way of the world, and they have a leg up thanks to their district’s forward thinking.”

Cruz said that the partnership with ASU Prep Digital has been beneficial especially during COVID-19, when some students struggled with connectivity and falling behind; she said ASU Prep Digital helped students get caught up after learning was disrupted. With customized coursework and great instruction and resources, students could go at their pace and be successful. 

Ultimately, Cruz said the partnership centers around that principle of innovative and collaborative approaches to closing opportunity gaps and thinking ahead about education. 

“We see our kids for nine years in K–8. Our job is to help our students graduate from high school and do amazing things. This is one of the ways that we do that,” Cruz said.

Learn more about ASU Prep Digital school partnerships.

Additional reporting by Angela Menninger

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