Prescott Unified School District celebrates 150 years helping all the community’s children succeed
By Hilary Dartt
If anything has changed in the past 150 years, it’s education. The Prescott Unified School district is no exception; a century and a half ago, all the students from the entire district fit inside a four-room schoolhouse, where they learned reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Now, the district is charged with educating just less than 4,000 students, and instruction goes beyond information to problem-solving.
District administrators—Assistant Superintendent Mardi Read and Superintendent Joe Howard—believe the district is doing lots of things well after all this time, and they’re committed to doing even more to live the district’s motto: “Every child, every day.”
“Our motto is non-negotiable,” Joe said, and Mardi said, “We say, ‘Every child, every day,’ and we mean it.”
Over time, the employees of the district—which is the oldest in Yavapai County and the third-oldest in Arizona—has lived this motto by continuing to look at the best practices for supporting kids, Mardi said.
“We change as needed,” she said, adding, “But that doesn’t mean we change if we don’t need to.”
Over the course of the past decade or so, Prescott Unified School District has seen its share of changes. Declining enrollment numbers thanks to the recession in 2008 forced district administrators to rethink the budget, close some campuses, and move the district office. Educational standards changed, and so did opportunities the district could provide for students.
Despite all the changes, Joe and Mardi said, the district is doing great things, thanks in large part to the wonderful staff and a generous community.
So what’s working?
“It’s all about balancing three things,” Joe said. “Salaries, class size, and programs. If you get off-balance with any one of those, you lose teachers and students.”
Salaries. Members of the district administration and the governing board have worked hard to ensure teachers have received raises every year for the past five years (after not receiving any raises for eight years before that).
Class size. Joe said PUSD maintains small class sizes when compared with districts statewide. It’s required some creative planning, he said. Each spring, district administrators perform a “staffing allocation” to ensure class sizes are optimal for the great instruction. Then, as number fluctuates (due to families moving out of or into the district), district staff members make adjustments. If class sizes at a certain grade level become too large, the district allocates “one-time” money (from grants or carry forward) to cover a new position, and then, the next year, makes that position a permanent part of the budget.
Programs. “One of the things Prescott Unified does very well is that we continue to provide multiple opportunities for the kids to succeed, not just in academics, but in extracurriculars, too,” Mardi said. “We’re truly developing the whole child.”
In terms of programs, Joe said, “You have to change and move as the world changes. In the twenty-first century, we don’t know what a lot of the jobs are that our kids are going to have, because they’re not created yet. From an instructional standpoint, the world has changed, but Prescott Unified has been on top of it in terms of a deeper focus on teaching kids to problem solve.”
The Internet has made knowledge and information so easily accessible that teachers now spend more time on problem-solving, and using the information to problem solve. In addition to problem-solving, students have the opportunity to learn a wide variety of subjects, practices, and skills—music, the arts, and trades.
“We’re kind of the perfect size,” Mardi said. “We’re big enough to provide so many options, but not too big where you get lost in the mix.”
The high school offers ROTC, a wide variety of clubs and sports, and Career and Technical Education opportunities that empower students to graduate with associate’s degrees and certifications in technical trades.
All these programs wouldn’t be possible without collaboration—within the district, and between the district and the community.
A Culture of Collaboration
One change many people are aware of: districts are required to test students on the state standards.
Mardi said when she first started teaching almost 20 years ago, each school was built as needed and developed its own culture and practices. Since educational standards changed, though, administrators, principals, and teachers realized they all needed to unify and come together.
“It’s for consistency—teaching what we’re supposed to teach—and also just for economy,” Mardi said. “And the consequence of that was a positive consequence. The district is collaborative. Now we really support each other. It’s a nice feeling.”
That districtwide unity has sparked a greater sense of collaboration between administrators and teachers.
“We consider our teachers the experts in the field,” Mardi said. “They’re the practitioners.”
“We know putting a great teacher in front of kids is the most important thing,” Joe said.
That’s why collaboration—with regard to curriculum and instructional policies—is so important.
“This is the way to lead, to me,” Joe said. “We have communication systems where teachers have input to decisions because they’re living it every day.”
We always implement a collaborative process to talk about curriculum and instructional policies.”
In addition to seeking expert advice from the people in the classrooms, Joe said, it’s important to ensure teachers feel supported.
Mardi attributes the district’s great culture to its great people, and said, “One thing that’s been a big initiative for us is work-life balance.”
“We recognize that teaching is the kind of job where you’re never done. You can always plan more, grade more, decorate your room, research best practices. You could work literally 24/7 and never feel like you’re truly done.”
That’s why, she said, administrators have worked to encourage staff members to get off devices, avoid answering emails on weekends, and take a break.
“It’s important because we need the teachers refreshed and ready to be with the kids,” she said. “We want our teachers to love coming to work.”
Teacher retention has skyrocketed. The attrition rate decreased from 33 percent in 2014 and 2015 to 13 percent this year (which Joe said is a “typical” turnover rate for teachers). Joe said he owes gratitude to district voters who in 2015 approved an override that enabled the district to give raises. That override sunsets this year, and the District Governing Board recently asked voters to approve a slightly larger override (8 percent) that would bring PUSD teacher salaries closer to the state average.
And, students are thriving. In 2020, Prescott High School graduates were awarded more than $7.4 million in scholarships. About 90 percent of graduates entered secondary college, the military, or the workforce with skills related to their Career and Technology coursework. Lincoln Elementary School received Yavapai County’s Healthiest School Award. Granite Mountain School is STEM/STEAM certified for grades five and six.
“We feel like our community is a big part of our district,” Mardi said. “We have so many partnerships that provide funding to us for many things. We feel like we’re Prescott’s community schools—we try to listen to what the community is asking for from our schools, and respond as best as we can.”
“Even though we’ve been through some tough years,” Joe said, “[members of the community] know we—the administrators and the board—have done everything we possibly can. Some of the hard work in there was resizing our district. Closing schools, consolidating—those were some of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But the community saw us doing everything we could to balance the budget and be fiscally responsible.”
Thanks to open communication and the generous people of Prescott, the district, Joe, and Mardi said, is well connected with the community.
“We have many, many partners, and it’s been great,” Mardi said. “If we have something we want to implement but we don’t have the funding, we can usually tap on someone’s shoulder and say, ‘Hey, would you be interested in this?’”
Thanks to generous donations (the Prescott Unified School District Education Foundation has raised about one million dollars in the past five years and other partners including families, businesses, and individuals have donated, too), the district offers unique opportunities.
These include culture programs that teach kids to see value in each other and treat one another with kindness, summer school each year, and more. Also, more than 800 volunteers give presentations, help out teachers, and support students.
“Arizona’s a tough place to be an educator,” Joe said, “but Prescott makes up the difference with its generosity.”
After 150 years of providing an excellent education for every child, every day, there is still work to do, Joe said.
As the district reopens physical campuses in August after closing them in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators will have to be ready for just about anything (listen to the podcast for details!)
And, Joe said, the district has lost lots of families because of the rising cost of living in Prescott. Still, enrollment has increased during two of the past three years, and Joe said he hopes Prescott will be a place where families can afford to live in the future.
“we’ve got to be thinking together as a community about how to attract families,” he said. “If that keeps getting off-balance, that’s not healthy for the community. We’ve got to have balance across the generations.”
Finally, Joe said he’d like to see Arizona’s legislators make education a top priority.
Meanwhile, he said, the Prescott Unified School District’s staff will continue to provide for every student, every day.
Joe said, “We have a lot to celebrate … we’re going to use [the celebrations this school year] to offset some of the pain we’ve had from COVID-19 and get ourselves back on our feet and look at the resiliency we’ve had over the past 150 years as we’ve provided a great place for kids to learn and grow up to be part of this great community.”
To learn more, visit www.prescottschools.com.
Abbreviated History of Prescott Unified School District
Yavapai County Board of Supervisors establishes a school district in Prescott, with schooling held in small buildings and private homes in the area
The Prescott Free Academy is constructed, a four-room red brick building with a bell cupola
Washington School is constructed and the Prescott Free Academy demolished shortly after
Prescott City Hall is remodeled for use as a high school
Lincoln Elementary constructed due to increase in Washington School Students
PHS moved from City Hall to a new building, located across from Washington School
Miller Valley School is constructed
Prescott High School Seniors put the “P” on top of Badger Mountain
Jefferson Elementary is constructed
A new Prescott High School is constructed and Prescott Junior High School moves into the old PHS building
Jefferson Elementary is closed due to lack of students
Jefferson Elementary is sold to the Community for use as a Community Hospital
Dexter Elementary, named for prolific teacher and principal Mata Dexter, is constructed to accommodate the after war baby boom
Taylor Hicks Elementary, named for Prescott’s own Mayor Taylor Hicks, is constructed
A new Prescott High School is obstructed at its current Ruth St location
Granite Mountain Middle School is constructed
Abia Judd Elementary, named for a past principal and superintendent, is constructed
Lincoln School and Washington School are placed on the National Register of Historic Places
Prescott Junior High School is renamed Prescott Mile High Middle School
Due to lack of students, Dexter Elementary school closes
Due to lack of students,Washington School and Miller Valley school closes
Washington School is repurposed for use as the current PUSD District Office