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Challenging, Supporting and Preparing Arizona Students

Author: Helios Education Foundation

Ruo Qiu is a 17-year-old Yuma, Arizona, high school senior who does not just dream of obtaining a college education, she is certain about it.

"University, of course," she says when asked about her plans after high school. "I am applying to 10 universities. My dream school is Stanford."

Ruo's future is all but certain due, in large part, to Ready Now Yuma, an initiative in her high school that incorporates very high academic rigor, abundant student supports and multiple student options.

Helios Education Foundation partnered with the Yuma Union High School District to launch Ready Now Yuma in 2011. Through this initiative, the district's six high schools use the Cambridge curriculum, an "aligned instructional system" that provides a rigorous core curriculum comprised of courses in English, math, science, history, and the arts, with end-of-course exams. The internationally-recognized curriculum also aligns with Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards.

Yuma County, Arizona, may not seem a likely cradle of academic innovation. Located in the far southwest corner of Arizona, the county's per capita income and education statistics are below average. One in five residents lives below the poverty level, and more than half speak a language other than English at home.

But Ready Now Yuma has put the District on the cutting edge of academic innovation in Arizona.

Through Ready Now Yuma, all high school students participate in the Cambridge curriculum in 9th and 10th grades. That is one of the most unique aspects of this initiative – it is not only for high performing students, it is for every student – regardless of their future plans or past academic performance.

In 2011, the first year of Ready Now Yuma, Ruo was a freshman at Yuma District's San Luis High School and a recent transplant from Colorado, where middle school, she says, had been hard: "I think they had higher level classes in my middle school.”

Nonetheless, she found the Cambridge courses challenging. "In freshman year, Cambridge courses had a lot of homework," she recalled. And her classmates who had grown up in Yuma County public schools saw a significant jump in the degree of difficulty. "They say that before, assignments were easier," she said. "Now, the questions and homework assignments are more in-depth."

But that is the point, Ruo says. Ready Now Yuma and the Cambridge curriculum push students to "do more than just go through the motions of learning."

For those who find the curriculum challenging, there are supports. "Tutoring is very prominent," Ruo said. "Teachers offer tutoring after school. It’s a hard curriculum… We are challenged to think or ask more questions… especially for the science classes. There are labs after school."

The optional post-course exams test student mastery of the subject. If a student feels his or her scores are not satisfactory, there are opportunities to refresh learning and retake the exams. "I didn’t pass one of the math exams and retook it the next year," Ruo recalled.

"The Cambridge exams show college readiness. If students are able to pass that exam then it shows that they are prepared for the work that is given in college." But, as Ruo recognized, the exams also help teachers. "It also tells teachers what they can be doing better."

With each passing year, another freshman class has moved into the Ready Now Yuma pipeline until, this year, all 11,000 Yuma district high school students are participating in Ready Now Yuma. But it will not be until spring 2015, when Ruo graduates, that a cohort of students will have experienced Ready Now Yuma throughout their high school career. Consequently, it is too early to pass judgment on the effectiveness of the program, said Matt Buckley, communications director for Yuma Union High School District.

"We have seen some things anecdotally," he said, "but it would be premature to make any determination."

For Ruo, however, the results already are in. She earned the Grand Canyon Diploma in her junior year, one of the first two Yuma County students to achieve the honor. "My counselor told me that it is a grand achievement," Ruo said. "I do think it is one of the premier achievements I have had." She chose to remain in high school and will graduate in spring 2015 with her class.

Ruo clearly understands the unique benefits of Ready Now Yuma's demanding academics:

"It's all about asking the important questions that make your head hurt," she said, "not just memorizing facts but applying them in discussion to real life; not just learning what it is, but why it matters."

Category: 10 Year Anniversary

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