As a “turnaround” principal, Ray Chavez has a daunting task before him: Transform Mesa’s Carson Junior High School from a low-performing underachiever into an academic success. After Carson was found to be failing for five years under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Mesa Unified School District was required to take drastic steps to “turn around” the school.

Enter Chavez, a new principal from a Tucson school with similar demographics — lower income families, a lot of English language learners, lackluster test scores — but rising achievement levels and a more involved parent community. Exit most of the Carson teachers — only 15 were kept and 35 new ones hired — after the entire staff was told to reapply for their jobs.

In his first year at Carson, it’s too soon to tell if the changes Chavez is making are resulting in higher scores on tests such as Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards. But according to students and staff, there is a definite change in attitude.

As 14-year-old Joy Okeze told Tribune education reporter Michelle Reese: “Last year, it didn’t feel like a school environment. Last year, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college. This year, I know I want to be a neurologist.”

And, she added, “Students are more respectful than they were last year.”

High expectations. Respect. Those two factors are critical in making a school — or any business or organization for that matter — a success.

Obviously, students and parents need to expect more of themselvesand show more respect for the teachers in the classroom. But also: Educators need to expect more — and yes, show more respect for — students and families who all too often have been written off by public education as the ones that can’t succeed because of their socioeconomic status.

The No Child Left Behind law was flawed from the beginning in its implementation, a complicated formula for dissecting test results at every public school by income, ethnicity, race, special needs, and more. If the school failed in even one sub-category, it was labeled a total loss. Educators rightly complained that this beast of a mandate pretty much set them up for failure.

But what No Child Left Behind got right was the message that every child — regardless of background — deserves an education with high standards. No child should be left behind because a school doesn’t think he or she is worth the effort.

Chavez sounds like he may be the breath of fresh air that Carson needs, though his real challenge may come in the next phase.

Chavez told Reese that he has ideas for Carson, but first, “We need a safer and more orderly campus and a positive academic trend. That’s first year work. Second year work ... we’ll figure out how to engage the community more, parents, business and the community in general.”

While he was able to replace most of the teaching staff at Carson, Chavez won’t be able to replace the community. He’ll have to transform it.

Carson is located on the west side of Mesa in an area that struggles economically. But it’s also an old neighborhood with some deep roots, pride and traditions.

If Chavez can tap into that, Carson has a bright future.

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