By Lauren Carriere, Principal of Ajo High School and Ajo Elementary School

In our close-knit community of Ajo, we take pride in dreaming big dreams for our children and giving them the tools to make those dreams reality. Because we believe in what our kids can do, students at Ajo Unified School District (AUSD) are rising to a level of excellence and proving the possible. In what was once a failing school, we now have a 93% percent graduation rate and, in recent years, over half of our students earning entrance to college. Ajo High School‘s grade moved from a “D” in 2011 to an “A” in 2014.  Ajo Elementary School earned a “B” in 2014 and we strive for “A” status! These achievement gains have accelerated in the last five years due to a shared staff commitment to excellence and a sense of accountability—not just to standards—but to each individual student. As a result, our kids are flourishing under high expectations and the confidence we daily demonstrate in their abilities. We still face many challenges as we work to increase academic rigor and improve AzMERIT scores.

Giving rural students a high quality opportunity for learning, as we do in Ajo, prepares them for life and to make meaningful contributions to our community.

For Ajo students, this may look like college readiness or it could mean being prepared to enter a job field armed with the necessary technical tools and training. Our focus is to prepare students to continue their education in college, community college, industry certification, to enter the workplace, or to serve in the military. Strong academic skills, blended with relevant career and technical curriculum, will lead to viable career paths. Whatever path our students take, we are committed to seeing them prepared to pursue it.

That is why I am so gratified that Governor Ducey’s executive budget proposal places a priority not only on education, but focuses on the rural and low-income communities making great gains for Arizona students. Clearly the Governor sees the education transformation happening across our state led in part by rural Arizona. How wonderful to see this strong proposal to reinforce sustained efforts like ours to beat-the-odds in communities all over rural Arizona.

In rural communities like Ajo, it takes a significant effort to help our students succeed. Poverty brings other challenges that can often impede individual student progress. These hurdles are surmountable, but they do require an additional degree of dedication and grit to overcome. This is why we desperately need high quality teachers, something that most rural schools can agree are difficult to find and keep. In Ajo, we have gotten creative, casting our net internationally to bring in great teachers from other countries, such as Jamaica and the Philippines. Simply giving in to the difficulty of finding exactly the right teacher is not an option for us; we commit to find the teachers our students need.

The Governor’s budget components combine to increase salaries for our dedicated Arizona teachers. I especially like the proposed bonuses for teachers who commit to high need areas. In addition, the Governor’s commitment to loan forgiveness for Math, Science, and Special Education teachers is vital in a place like Ajo. Added together, these funding pieces are possible game-changers for our community.

Great teachers are the ones who don’t just recognize potential, but help kids realize it. They are who we need in our classrooms; having the additional resources for teacher pay and bonuses is a great way to hang on to our best educators.

Ajo students will benefit from the Governor’s proposed funds for FAFSA Completion and the initiative in Computer Science. As a lead team that has shrunk from six to three (to meet the sustainability requirements of our School Improvement Grant), leadership training would come in handy. We are eager to apply for the Beat the Odds Leadership Academy, also included in the Governor’s budget, to increase our effectiveness with our precious students. The money proposed for full-day Kindergarten and Early Literacy efforts could free up dollars currently spent on our kinders to continue funding our Reading Specialist.

As the Principal of Ajo High School and Ajo Elementary School (Go Red Raiders!), I strongly support the Governor’s proposed budget because I see great benefits for our schools, and for our community. We have a great school turnaround story because we recognized what we owed our students, their families, and our neighborhoods. We are on a trajectory to prepare our diverse students for success in life and to give back to our community and our local economy. With more money in great classrooms and a stronger ability to support our incredible teachers, we see ourselves and schools like us creating an incredible leadership force that will show what is possible in Arizona.