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SUSD Superintendent A.J. Taylor

Several years ago, Safford Unified School District administrators and teachers realized they needed to do something to help students who wanted to finish their educations, but were having a hard time getting to school because they were working, single parents or facing other obstacles.

Their solution was the Henry Dunkerson Pathways Academy, the first online school of its kind in the Gila Valley.

Every since 2016, high school students have been able to take all of their courses online under the guidance of teachers at the district’s other alternative high school — Mt. Graham High School. The students have been able to set their own schedules, as long as they meet with their mentor teacher at least once a week to check in or take assessments.

When COVID-19 hit last spring, roughly 60 students were enrolled at HDPA, which was named after a long-time educator who retired a few years ago, said A.J. Taylor, SUSD superintendent.

By May and June, educators statewide were already beginning to wonder what the 2020-2021 school year was going to look like. Taylor said it was at that point that the State Department of Education decided to allow schools to either start their own online programs or expand their existing ones.

The deadline to apply for the expansion was July 1 and SUSD received permission to expand the academy from grades 9-12 to K-12, he said.

Needless to say, a lot was going on at SUSD between July 1 and Aug. 4 to get the academy ready.

Mt. Graham High School teachers were asked to take on additional students and the district had to find K-8 teachers willing to teach academy students without knowing whether they’d be teaching in-person in the fall, teaching from a distance or a combination of both.

Those teachers, who had just finished learning the Google Classroom way of doing things, had to learn an entirely different teaching model, Taylor said. Students at the academy don’t use Google Classroom; they use something called School POPS, which not only works differently than Google Classroom, but has a variety of different curricula to teach.

“It’s been a tremendous increase in workload on the teachers and I’m just really proud of those teachers and administrators,” Taylor said. “It’s been a ton of extra work in a short amount of time, kind of a build an airplane in the air kind of thing. They’ve really stepped up.”

When online distance learning started Aug. 4, HDPA had 235 students enrolled, Taylor said.

It was rough at first, but things are starting to run more smoothly, he said.

As difficult as it’s been, it was definitely worth it, Taylor said.

If not for the academy and its teachers, the district could easily have lost 180 students.

“It’s a real credit to our staff,” Taylor said. “They’re really committed people who care about kids and want to see kids educated the best that they can.”

Taylor said he expects to lose some HDPA students as SUSD slowly returns to in-person teaching, but he’s sure some will discover the academy is their best option.

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