Blog

The opportunity to rethink Arizona’s education system is now

Rachel Yanof, Executive Director, Achieve60AZ

Originally published on AZCentral.com

There is a lot of talk about “returning to normal” and what that means, post-pandemic.

Over the past few months, in the scramble to move to online and distance learning, the challenges of our education system have been exposed like never before. As a former teacher, principal, school-system leader, and now head of an organization that supports the statewide goal to see 60 percent of Arizonans have a certificate or degree by 2030 – I propose that we can never go back to “normal” in education.

I laud educators for their tremendous work in this moment. They have shown that the system can be nimble and responsive, and make big things happen.

Now, we need to scale that change and build for the future, designing a system that addresses the most underserved and, ultimately, meets the needs of all students.

Arizona’s educational system has been wildly disrupted. It’s time to reimagine it. 

In my career, I’ve had to fit into the existing education box, then find ways to think outside of it. With that in mind, Achieve60AZ is launching a new blog series, “Road to Attainment,” expanding on what we’ve learned during this time from education, business, and community leaders, parents, and students.

We hope you’ll engage with us as we explore the possibilities, including:

Early start. What if school starts at age 3? Research shows an early start would position all students to achieve more through extended opportunity for play, access to healthy food, and learning social skills. Parents with stable childcare are able to work more and attend school to better their family’s economic status.

Year-Round Calendar. Other countries see better performance from students when they go to school year-round. As a teacher, I remember spending the first six weeks of every year reteaching from a summer off, exacerbated for students who are less likely to go to camp or without consistent access to books and computers. With a year-round model, students have stable access to food, counseling, and infrastructure basics like air-conditioning or heating, and internet. 

Extended school day. Right now, working parents must rely on family or pay for before- and after-school care in order to accommodate a 40-hour work week. A longer school day could integrate activities kids need: outside time or more recess, longer lunches so they really eat the veggies, regular art and music, and longer class periods for deeply-engaging projects and experiments.

Achievement-based learning. Currently, rules say a learner is “ready” when they have been in each class for a prescribed time. Why not, instead, create competency-based classes, work-based learning, and meaningful apprenticeships worth credit for high school and postsecondary students, at scale? This pandemic has taught us that learning is not a function of time, but mastery of content.

Employers as education leaders. Employers must rethink how they are investing in their workforce. Now is the time to push for innovative career training, expanded education benefits, and rethinking employees as lifelong learners – all changes that serve employees as well as the current and future needs of the workforce at large.

Taken individually, each of these changes helps increase opportunities for learning. The larger task is integrating many changes and designing a system that has the potential to dramatically change educational outcomes.

In the old normal, African-Americans, Latinx, and American Indian students still trail in all academic areas, as do students with special needs. Most distressingly, income is still the main determinate of educational success.

Big shifts are uncomfortable, but, if we all can forge ahead through the discomfort, and support our leaders when they do things differently, even bigger successes are the reward.

Our kids’ future will be defined by COVID-19 response 

I have spent a lot of time with my three young kids lately.  A lot. Their generation will be defined by our society’s response to COVID-19.

We must use this moment to lay the groundwork for a better future. Achieve60AZ exists to keep Arizonans focused on the ambitious education goals we have set for all learners.

Going back means we will not meet our Education Progress Meter goals — metrics that were set intentionally to get students on track for academic and career success.

Together, we can write an Arizona story that starts with a pandemic, but ends with every student achieving, every adult working, and our state thriving.  

Join the conversation at Achieve60AZ.com/RoadtoAttainment. Let’s seize this opportunity and create a better normal, where Arizona is a leader in education and economic prosperity.


Rachel Yanof is the executive director of Achieve60AZ, an initiative of more than 150 organizations committed to achieving the goal of 60 percent of Arizona adults obtaining a postsecondary credential or degree by 2030. 

Businesses Helping Address Issues in Education

Monica Villalobos, Shelley Watson, Julie Engel

Moving the needle on educational attainment is vital to Arizona businesses. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. Equity in education, school to career pathways, and upskilling and retraining prepare businesses and individuals for future prosperity and success. We asked some Arizona business leaders to share their thoughts on today’s education landscape.

Monica Villalobos is President & CEO of Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Shelley Watson is Vice President of Southern Arizona Leadership Council and serves on the Achieve60Az board of directors.

Julie Engel is President & CEO – Chief Economic Architect of Greater Yuma EDC.

What are the main challenges educators in your community are facing as a result of COVID-19? How is your community managing those challenges?

Monica Villalobos: One of the biggest issues has been lack of access to technology hardware and internet. So many children of color don’t have the equipment necessary to continue their education online. TheArizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is working with the Black Chamber, the Asian Chamber, and the American Indian Chamber to collect hardware donations to help our students of color and ensure all students have internet access. 

Shelley Watson: The only thing that all of us really know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure when it comes to COVID. Educators are concerned about not only their health, but the health of their students and of students’ families. They’re grappling with all the changing guidance, and also finding ways to clearly communicate an uncertain path forward with families.

Julia Engel: The biggest issue has been technology and the lack of broadband access. Rural teachers and students are inadequately served and can’t connect to each other. Navigating all of this has been very challenging. We don’t have the capacity to warrant investment by the carriers, so we don’t have good service.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? How does the business community support new ways to address educational inequities and challenges moving forward? 

Monica Villalobos: Our entire perspective needs to shift to helping K-12, especially students of color. As we find solutions for teaching and learning during the pandemic, many of those options simply are not available to communities of color. Solutions for the majority are not always solutions for minority groups. Business owners need to look at K-12 as a talent pipeline and invest as part of the succession plan for their future workforce. 

Shelley Watson: There are inequities around access to technology devices and the internet. Schools that were already pretty cash-strapped now have to purchase things like PPE and extra sanitation services. At Southern Arizona Leadership Council, our member businesses are engaged at the local level. For example, Cox Communications has opened up 750 hotspots in Tucson, and is in the process of providing free home equipment to people in the community while other members have been providing PPE for schools. 

Julie Engel: This digital access gap is just one more disadvantage that our community has to deal with, through no fault of their own. The business community is suffering too, as their internet service isn’t any better. Solving this problem is going to require a partnership between the public and private sectors, and more government support.

How can high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for work given a recession? What effect will this recession have on career choices for the Classes of 2020 and 2021?

Monica Villalobos: High schools and postsecondary institutions are helping current students by providing vocational options. I’m really encouraged by the work that Phoenix Union High School District is doing, particularly around the Academies at South Mountain High School. Students can earn a medical assistant certificate or apprentice as an engineer and then earn a livable wage while they go to school. The business community needs to invest in vocational opportunities, whether it’s something like the Academies at South Mountain, apprenticeships, or internships. 

Shelley Watson: More than ever, high schools and postsecondary institutions are going to have to engage with industry and find out what’s needed. They need to really keep their pulse on what the current skills are in industry and directly teach those skills. There can’t be a disconnect, because technology is moving too fast now. Jobs of the future are going to look very different than they do now.

Julie Engel: Schools are definitely trying to institute pathways that are pointing students toward careers where there are actually jobs available. They’re being mindful about offering skillsets, certificates, and training that are focused toward careers, and not so much institutional educational knowledge. Schools are even encouraging certificate-type programs in partnership with traditional education.

How will a recession and unemployment affect opportunities for adult education? In what ways can the business community help support adult learners?

Monica Villalobos: Entrepreneurs tend to be lifelong learners. They’re constantly upskilling and learning new ways to adapt their business, their service, their job. I think the business community is a really good example of how to implement lifelong learning to stay current in any given industry. To keep the economy moving forward, we need adult learners with a lifelong learning mentality.

Shelley Watson: Most adults these days realize that education is no longer this linear thing. You don’t just complete your education and then you never need to look back. One of the major things that the business community can do is support Arizona’s community colleges as they offer high quality, cost-effective continuing education for adult learners.

Julie Engel: Our employers who are looking for employees are working very closely with workforce groups to help guide training so that people aren’t spending money on an education that isn’t going to end up benefitting them in a career or a job. They’re also finding ways to help offset the cost of this training.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Monica Villalobos: I am fascinated and inspired by the steadfast commitment of educators to teach anywhere and evolve. I am also inspired by the philanthropic community, which has found a way to make a significant impact on the whole educational landscape. The philanthropic community does a really good job of finding the pain points in a particular community and providing the support system to optimize resources. 

Shelley Watson: As I’ve mentioned before, students are so resilient and adaptable that they’ve really inspired me throughout this. In my own home, it was really gratifying to watch my kids come home from college and just buckle down with a new paradigm to really finish their semesters strong. Students and educators have inspired us all with their amazing resilience and ability to quickly pivot to meet the challenges we face.

Julie Engel: Our education leaders and our healthcare leaders are both on the frontlines. It has been an honor to see the bravery and the efforts that both groups have put forth. It is truly inspirational to see how they’re putting everything to the side and doing what has to be done, and they’re doing it in a way that is efficient, safe, and providing results.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our current reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Monica Villalobos: Because we’re a small business state — 98 percent of all jobs come from small business — business owners must buy into the value of education. They must see that direct impact of any kind of education, whether it’s K-12 education, traditional post high school education, vocational education, internships, or apprenticeships. They must buy into the value of that for the success of their business. 

Shelley Watson: We can’t just speak about achieving 60 percent simply for education’s sake alone. Education has to be meaningfully tied to something for it to truly resonate, and for people to understand why it’s important. So that means highlighting how achieving that benchmark is going to provide more prosperity and quality of life for everyone in Arizona. Julie Engel: We need a lot of adults to earn their credentials in order to meet this goal. In spite of what’s happened in 2020, I am seeing people take advantage of the time to learn new skills, and our community colleges are trying to get training to those who have been affected by the pandemic. There is a real opportunity now to reskill and reeducate so many people

What Latinx Education Leaders are Doing to Help Their Students and Communities

Amanda Aguirre, Marla Franco, David Verdugo, Vince Yanez

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an indelible impact on education. It has forced us to take a hard look at how we deliver education, and highlighted the inequities that exist in terms of access to technology and resources. We spoke with four Latinx education leaders about these challenges, and how we can meet the basic needs of all students so that they are ready and able to learn.

Amanda Aguirre is President & CEO for the Regional Center for Border Health, Inc. & San Luis Walk In Clinic, Inc. and Former Arizona State Senator.

Marla Franco is Assistant Vice Provost of Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Initiatives at The University of Arizona.

David Verdugo is Superintendent of Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

Vince Yanez is Senior Vice President of Arizona Community Engagement for Helios Education Foundation and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of COVID-19? How have you and your colleagues managed those challenges?

Amanda Aguirre: At the Regional Center for Border Health, first, we had to educate ourselves on COVID-19 to be ready to educate others, while also finding a way to protect our entire campus community. There was a lot of fear in the beginning, so our priority was making sure we all had accurate information, and figuring out how to quickly provide community screenings and culturally sensitive educational materials to our community.

Marla Franco: In March, The University of Arizona had to quickly switch gears to support distance learning. That immediate pivot didn’t allow for adequate planning  to provide the highest quality of learning that our faculty and staff are known for. Many students lacked access to broadband Wi-Fi or the technology to engage in online learning. Others lacked reliable food sources, were laid off, or found themselves in unsafe environments as essential workers. We really had to force ourselves to have a collectivist mindset, and to think about the ways our university could share its resources.

David Verdugo: The challenge has been to meet the needs of all of our students, not only in academics, but also from a health and social-emotional standpoint. We needed to continue to feed 3500 of our students on a daily basis, , which we did by maintaining our school food service program including delivery to students and working with local produce houses to divert excess produce to families. We also had to find ways to support student language development, especially for our youngest students, which we did by helping teachers build relationships with their students online.

Vince Yanez: The overriding challenge related to impacts of the pandemic is uncertainty: How do we provide safe schools for students and staff? How long do we educate remotely? How do we prepare teachers to instruct students in a virtual environment and what systems need to be put in place? How will families manage the new demands this places on their time? There aren’t clear answers to any of these questions – and so many others. We all need to do our part to support our schools and higher education institutions as they navigate these challenges. At Helios we are trying to do our part to by providing emergency financial asstance to college students, and supporting efforts to provide training for teachers as they transition to online instructional models. There’s much more for all of us to do.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Amanda Aguirre: We can now give students options for course delivery: either to stay home and participate in the class via Zoom or to come in-person. We worked with the Board of Nursing to adjust students’ requirements and help them graduate in time under these current conditions.

Marla Franco: We were always concerned about the well-being and safety of our students and employees, but definitely not to this degree or at this sense of heightened urgency. Just like all colleges, universities, and K-12 schools, we’re grappling with quickly identifying a game plan that supports ongoing learning and takes into account safety and public health concerns, while being mindful that systemic inequities have resulted in our Latinx communities being disproportionaly negatively affected by COVID-19.

David Verdugo: The pandemic forced us to look at different learning models. Our district has worked hard at providing individualized learning for each student, but we are now talking about giving students even more options. For our students who have found greater success working from home, how do we continue to meet their needs going forward?

Vince Yanez: As schools shut down and we were forced online, the inequities we’ve been talking about for years were made even more apparent. Perhaps the most prominent issue has been the lack of access to internet connectivity or devices. And, it’s not a new issue. But, now a large portion of the population is being left behind, and that’s just unacceptable.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently, given the recession? From your perspective, what effect will this have on career choices for the Class of 2020?

Amanda Aguirre: Our local nursing homes had to stop hiring, so our graduates couldn’t find work. Since we are also a clinic, we hired as many of our graduates as we could. Unemployment is going to continue impacting Yuma County, especially because we already had the one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Compounded by the pandemic, it just feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel without a vaccine.

Marla Franco: Our university surveys its graduating students to get a better sense of their most immediate plans after graduation. Because we anticipated students would have greater challenges in securing work because of COVID-19, we tried to proactively strategize and provide career resources. We are exploring how to provide ongoing support so our students know that we’re here for them.

David Verdugo: The market is changing drastically, and Santa Cruz County already had high unemployment rates. We’re trying to help our students prepare for new opportunities within local industries. For example, at our agriculture farm, students can learn to become inspectors. We’re incorporating engineering, technology, and logistics to teach students about the autonomous driving industry. We’re starting to teach welding because there is a need at the new zinc mine.

Vince Yanez: At this point it is difficult to anticipate how the recession will impact career choices, but we do know that students who earn a degree or credential fare much better during difficult economic times. Unfortunately, we also know from experience that getting students to graduation during a recession can be extremely challenging. This is something that requires our attention and action. Now, more than ever, college students need to be provided the assistance they need to stay enrolled, persist, and graduate.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Marla Franco: For adults, we need to be mindful of the ways the economy has shifted and make sure we’re cognizant that adult learners have different needs. They might be looking for very targeted short-term learning opportunities, like specific skill-building or certifications that allow them to be more competitive in the current job market.

Vince Yanez: A big part of reaching the attainment goal will involve adults having to upskill, learn new trades, or just be nimble in a changing economy. One effect of the recession will be a need for individuals who have lost their jobs to gain some sort of postsecondary education to find a new place in the economy. That’s a big part of what we’ve been talking about at Achieve60AZ since the very beginning, and that need is heightened in a time like this.

What have been the biggest issues, challenges, or educational inequities highlighted by the pandemic? In what new ways do you think we will address these gaps moving forward?

Amanda Aguirre: Hispanic and Native American students are experiencing higher exposure to the virus and are more likely to lose members of their families. The safety net is not as strong as we need it to be, so our agency is providing food, education, access to healthcare – all the things people in rural communities need to survive. It takes a village.

Marla Franco: As university leaders, we need to be thinking holistically about the needs of students, because they can’t be successful learners if they are having to worry about meeting their families’ most basic needs. What do messages around handwashing and staying at home mean for communities who have challenges accessing reliable, clean water or groceries? Our campus food pantry has had a consistently heavy flow of students, staff, and faculty over the past two months.

David Verdugo: I talked to other superintendents who were trying to meet the academic, language, food, and social-emotional needs of their students. They were trying to make sure not to lose track of their students, especially those without a home phone or device, who may have moved in the early days of the pandemic. We need funding to do these things, and to make sure that we are providing necessary professional development so teachers can work with the entire student, helping them to function and be successful.

Vince Yanez: My daughter is getting ready to start kindergarten online this fall. We’re fortunate to have the tools at that are necessary for her to do the best she can in that world. But many families don’t have that access. If you’re a family with multiple children, each of those students now needs a device. And many parents need one to work. The issues are complicated, and the pandemic just made them more apparent. If we expect our students to learn in an online environment then we – as a state – have a responsibility to make sure those students have the tools they need to be successful.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve the 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Amanda Aguirre: It might take us a long time to get back to the way we used to run our lives, but we’re still working toward the goal. We have an incredible workforce of teachers who are always so innovative and thinking outside the box. The challenge is, we need the financial resources to make it happen.

Marla Franco: If we’re going to remain committed to the goals of Achieve60AZ and the outcomes that we anticipate from this collective effort, then we have to be all in as a state – as teachers, as higher education leaders, as employers, as local government leaders, as legislators, and as the governor. There needs to be real commitment to resources and funding to account for all of the unintended expenditures related to COVID-19 and preparing schools to reopen only when it is safe to do so.

David Verdugo: It goes back to equity – we need to provide students with what they need to be successful. We tell our students that we are a strong community, that there are no excuses, that we can do anything. Our students just need equitable opportunities so we can move toward that goal.

Vince Yanez: This time has given us the opportunity to think about all of our systems a little bit differently, whether its pre-K access, K-12 funding, or success metrics in higher education. When Achieve60AZ was formed and the attainment goal was adopted, it was with the knowledge that we were not going to reach 60 percent unless we do things very differently. There is a lot right with our system, but we also need to make significant investments across the educational spectrum and be willing to think outside the box to find new solutions to old problems.

Addressing the Education Challenges for Native Students

Serena Denetsosie, Karen Francis-Begay, Jim Larney, Charles Monty Roessel

The novel coronavirus pandemic has affected many students, but one student group that may be affected more dramatically than others is Native Americans. Many of our tribal reservations across the country, and here in Arizona, have been dealing with the digital divide since long before schools closed in March, hindering students’ abilities to complete their coursework. On top of that, many tribes were hit hard by the virus – often due to a lack of resources, like access to grocery stores, or even running water. We spoke to four Native American educators about what their students have been experiencing and the steps we need to take to help Native students and all of Arizona.

Serena Denetsosie is Deputy Associate Superintendent in the Office of Indian Education at the Arizona Department of Education.

Karen Francis-Begay is Assistant Vice Provost of Native American initiatives at the University of Arizona and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

Jim Larney is Director of the American Indian Institute at Mesa Community College.

Charles “Monty” Roessel is President of Diné College and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of COVID-19? How have you and your colleagues managed those challenges?

Serena Denetsosie: At the onset of the pandemic, we needed to take care of our Native American students by ensuring access to food and mental health resources. At the same time, there was the digital divide. Our teams at Arizona Department of Education came together really quickly to come up with a plan for our students. Our team immediately collaborated starting with ADE and federal food programs and moved on to other state agencies–collaboration we hope to continue on behalf of students.

Karen Francis-Begay: What has been really challenging is reaching students and making sure they’re okay. The transition to online learning was quick and disruptive in so many ways.  It was important to let our students know we were here for overall support and to remedy any issues so they could continue with their courses.  

Jim Larney:  The biggest challenge we faced was the disruption to our normal lives. Right in the middle of the semester, we had to shut down campusand turn everything that we do to a remote style of learning, while still trying to meet the needs of our students.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: The first challenge was just putting everything online. An issue we faced was that our online learning platform did not support the Navajo language, so we had to quickly switch platforms. Once we did get everything online, we realized that too many students couldn’t access their classes due to a lack of broadband, data, or devices. Some of our professors uploaded lectures online, but watching one lecture would use up all of a student’s data and then they couldn’t access the next week’s materials. We had professors who provided instruction four different ways for students that had different issues with their technology. We provided open hotspots at our colleges to meet the needs across our community. Students not only from our college, but also from Arizona State University, University of New Mexico, and Harvard University, who were now at home, would drive to our hotspots and access their classes.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Serena Denetsosie: We all know power structures and systemic inequalities have existed prior to this pandemic. We can’t ignore them any longer. What are we going to do in terms of holding each other accountable and working together for change? We have students from all different backgrounds relying on us, and so how do we learn from this going forward? It is important to have students who are in the education system at the table, so we can create sustainable change that works.

Karen Francis-Begay: My colleagues across the state and nation are having to come to grips with the fact that our Native students are definitely underserved. These students lack access to internet, running water and electricity in their homes, don’t have food security, and are dealing with the pandemic with underfunded healthcare services. We need to take those issues into account and commit ourselves to doing all we can to support students who come to the university with their basic needs unmet.   

Jim Larney: We can do everything remotely – moving everything to a remote style of learning, remote style of communicating. Now we can set up virtual meetings from anywhere, at any time; however, we lose that in-person touch that many Native students need by connecting with people face to face.  

Charles “Monty” Roessel: The education community is talking about the opportunity this pandemic has forced upon us. I look at it more as a responsibility to all students. Because the pandemic is growing, our responsibility is not just to our students, but to other students as well. We owe our responsibility to the people — the students — that have passed as a result of COVID-19. Their dreams were cut short. How do we make sure that new students can be safe and continue to achieve their dreams? It’s much larger than ourselves and it’s much larger than the pandemic.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession? How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Serena Denetsosie: We have a tendency to overlook how often schools are centers for economic stability, and some of the largest employers in communities. So how do we work together to ensure our communities can thrive through education? By balancing Indigenous knowledge systems and Western ideology within our own communities and schools, children can thrive and become lifelong students who are successful at navigating tribal and community colleges, universities, or trade schools.

Karen Francis-Begay: There are learning opportunities and training for adults to learn a new skill and expand their professional portfolio. With classes online, there is an opportunity for people who are already in the workforce to take advantage of this. It may sound counterintuitive with many of the tribal communities having little to no access to the internet, but it also challenges the equity paradigm when students want to access and achieve an education without leaving their home community.

Jim Larney: One thing we’ve been doing to help our students prepare for entering the workforce is collaborating with the Career Services Department to hold live workshops on subjects like how to fill out applications or how to write a resume, and to hold mock interviews. I think there will be a shift to career technical education opportunities with our current state of affairs.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: College used to be about just learning a skill to get a job. But now, colleges need to be engaged in the economy of their communities. Colleges have a larger impact. This is uncharted territory when we look at how we plan for the future, so we have to plan with what we know.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? What have been the biggest issues or challenges related to the education gap? 

Serena Denetsosie: The pandemic exposed a number of inequities, from broadband challenges to cultural lens challenges and the way we come together for our students. This time has shown how we have to overcome the digital divide by educating on cultural literacy and meeting our communities where they are. This takes trust and flexibility. We will all grow from this pandemic and hope to continue to put in the vital work needed on behalf of our children.  

Karen Francis-Begay: Our students are dealing with broadband capacity, financial challenges, and working from home while taking care of children, siblings, or elders at the same time. For many reasons, our students can’t be 100 percent engaged in their coursework. Such issues and concerns have been elevated to university senior leadership and they are taking notice and are making it a priority to find ways to support Native students and the communities they come from — and that’s a good thing.

Jim Larney: This pandemic has shown that the gap in access to technology is an equity issue. Some students don’t have the necessary devices or internet at home to work, while other students are sharing one computer with their whole family.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: One of the biggest things we‘ve been talking about is that everyone—students, faculty, staff, the community — needs access to quality mental health services. And for us, that also means access to our cultural health services so that we’re able to access healing ceremonies. Beyond healthcare, we’re wondering how we are going to increase graduation and retention rates when 30 percent of people on the reservation are worried more about washing their hands because they do not have running water.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Serena Denetsosie: This pandemic is hitting a lot of our elders in our tribal communities and the desperation and hopelessness is sometimes too overwhelming to acknowledge. But knowing our ancestors and tribal communities are resilient and have overcome a lot in history for us to be here today gives me hope.  The sacredness of protecting our languages, our cultures, and our elders who are our knowledge holders is important for the future for Indigenous education.

Karen Francis-Begay: I am really inspired by our Native students. I’m hearing that some of our students are driving to Wi-Fi hotspots that are two hours away, sitting there and getting homework done, and then driving back home another two hours. That’s a huge commitment from students, and it makes me want to do even more on their behalf.

Jim Larney: As a father, I am drawing my energy from my own children. Despite all of the setbacks and cancellations, my kids are just resilient. They are not letting this get them down.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: In the early days of the pandemic, we had a student who tested positive, went to the hospital, and then Zoomed into class from her hospital bed. The professor told her she really didn’t need to do that, but she said, “I want to stay, I want to learn.” Now, if that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what does. There are so many other stories of student resilience. This pandemic has forced us to listen to our students, to hear their voices because they matter, to hear their stories because they matter, and to hear and feel their hearts because they matter.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Serena Denetsosie: We as people all have some type of power and we need to exercise it. We need to walk the talk and put forth funding, change the system, create new policy. We need students, we need elders, we need all different people at the table. We need to acknowledge that the dominant society’s way of doing things was set up for a certain group of people, and that hasn’t worked for everyone. So, what will we do to change the power dynamics for children and communities so we can grow together?

Karen Francis-Begay: The best way to continue pushing toward our goal is to continue to advocate for students at the state and national levels, and to bring to light the educational inequities that exist. My greatest hope coming out of this pandemic is that we see more investment in education across the board.

Jim Larney: What’s the best way to reach our students? In order to achieve 60 percent attainment, we’re going to need to be innovative, yet practical, in our way of thinking. Sometimes we’re stepping over dollars to get a dime and forgetting about what we can actually do to reach our students. We need to start there.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: We need to change the way we view access to education. We look at K-12 as being a right, and then it stops there. So, if our goal is postsecondary attainment, we are running a 100-yard dash and stopping at 80. We need to finish the race. By doing so, we bring more in. And the more people you bring in, the bigger your circle gets. The bigger your circle gets, the more people you can bring in. That is how we achieve our goal.

The Steps Community College Leaders are Taking to Help Arizona

Lee Lambert, Stacy Klippenstein, Darcy Renfro

Community college is a crucial piece of the education system for learners throughout Arizona, and an important tool to drive Arizona’s economy. As unemployment numbers continue to rise, more people are looking for ways to reskill and upskill. Community colleges become especially important in helping people prepare to enter the post-COVID workforce. We spoke to three community college leaders from across the state to hear what they and their institutions are doing to help students and communities during this time.

Lee Lambert is Chancellor of Pima Community College and serves on the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

Stacy Klippenstein is the President of Mohave Community College.

Darcy Renfro is Maricopa Community Colleges’ Chief Workforce and Economic Development Officer and chair of the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education?

Lee Lambert: For me, it’s the intersection of things that really have not been talked about: pandemic, industry 4.0, and race. The key is how these three actually come together and lay the groundwork for reimagining education, not only now but for the future of education, teaching, learning, and work.

Stacy Klippenstein: I think everyone is talking about the use of different modalities to teach via distance education. How do you Zoom? How do you do synchronous and asynchronous education? And, how do we better allow for virtual competency-based education, especially in career and technical education?

Darcy Renfro: We are learning that digital divide issues are more prevalent than previously understood. The pandemic has underscored deeper disconnects that are felt across a large range of learners from early grades through adults. Removing brick-and-mortar options for the entire population hits the less affluent and most vulnerable among us. While the new economy continues toward more reliance on technology to keep Arizona’s economy competitive, we must be thoughtful to ensure that we do not create even more gaps for populations where educational attainment is much lower than our state and national averages.    

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms? 

Lee Lambert: What we do comes down to people. The people piece will not change. What’s going to have to be rethought is how we as humans interact with technology. We need to make sure the human and the technology elements are fully integrated into the learner’s experience so that we can give students the optimal learning environment to succeed.

Stacy Klippenstein: Student services. How do we continue to support students in new ways online, through the application, registration, tutoring, student success, and advising process? Some of this will be done virtually, like how healthcare is moving to telehealth. 

Darcy Renfro: From the workforce development perspective, what has changed is the focus on short-term training and skill credentials that can help somebody either move to a better a job or get a job more quickly.

How do postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession?

Lee Lambert: Today’s graduating students are not just living through a pandemic, they also lived through the Great Recession. They are living through an era approaching Great Depression levels, the reality of what happens when inequality persists and is not fully addressed in society. So this graduating class is actually in the best position to make the most sense of all of this because they’re living through it. As long as we help facilitate learning around this current reality, these students will become better leaders going forward, having lived through some of the most difficult challenges in recent memory.

Stacy Klippenstein: The people who are losing their jobs right now often do not have a postsecondary credential or degree. This is why we support the Achieve60AZ goal. There are industries waiting to pick back up once the economy begins to recover, and people are going to need a postsecondary education to get those jobs.

Darcy Renfro:   These are unprecedented times where we are seeing entire industry sectors practically decimated over a period of months. We have record unemployment, and job growth has been impacted unevenly across industries. Postsecondary institutions have an obligation to help students understand those shifts in the job market and direct resources toward areas where students will most likely find employment even in economic downturns. We know that a postsecondary degree or credential is valuable currency for all individuals in the job market. Working together to help support Arizona students and advance educational attainment needs to remain a top priority for all of us.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Lee Lambert: Pre-COVID, there were lots of conversations occurring around the future of work and the need for individuals to skill, reskill, and upskill. We are talking about digital skills, social-emotional skills, higher cognitive skills, and the ability to be adaptable and flexible. None of that has changed because of the pandemic.

Stacy Klippenstein: Adults are looking at what their plan is for the future during a time of great uncertainty. Some adults now have an opening in their schedule because they are suddenly unemployed. Some just need more adult basic education services to get their GED. I think offering those types of opportunities now is critical.

Darcy Renfro: It’s very hard to tell right now. Historically, when the economy is good, our enrollments go down. When the economy is bad, our enrollments go up as people look to gain new skills and credentials. This recession seems different because of the pandemic and lack of clarity around safety and health. We’re not seeing the same patterns we have in the past.  At the same time, we are seeing more employers focusing on improving learning and growth opportunities for employees with an increased emphasis on specific skill credentials that are transferable between jobs. 

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? In what new ways do you think we will address educational inequities and challenges moving forward?

Lee Lambert: The pandemic has really shined a spotlight on the flaws of our system, and George Floyd’s murder has sparked a new level of race consciousness. So many people were already struggling pre-COVID, and now we’re seeing that struggle on television. The question is, what are we going to do now? Are people going to step up and address these inequities that have been happening in our society for a long time? It takes dollars and leadership to make a difference to inequities like closing the digital divide.

Stacy Klippenstein: One thing we have recognized is the work we can do for adults with no higher education and adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We are also focusing more on our Latino students. We’re making some new changes to the ways we teach, and the ways we connect with and serve all students. 

Darcy Renfro:   Access to technology is underscoring the resource divide for low-income individuals and families. We have a lot of students with food and housing insecurity that are doing everything they can to make a better life for themselves. Not having a physical school or resource to go to makes it much, much harder.  Entire communities need to face these hard truths and work together to close these gaps, coordinate supports, and align resources that will give everyone the chance to succeed. 

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality?

Lee Lambert: If our K-12 system and our higher education system could come together and really reimagine what the students’ experience ought to be, and we build a system around the learner, we could go a long way in terms of skills acquisition, closing educational attainment, and really getting to that goal of Achieve60AZ.

Stacy Klippenstein: We need to find new ways to get people industry-recognized credentials, certificates, and degrees necessary for the new workforce. We’re concentrating on adults because we think that that’s going to move the needle in our community. We’re always going to go after the high school market, the traditional student age market. But we have not been planning for the adult student market in Mohave County, and we need to fix that.

Darcy Renfro: There are two areas that seem most urgent. First, ensuring that high school seniors continue their education, and putting resources and energy into that transitional time. Second, supporting adults that have some college and no degree, particularly those who’ve been in the hospitality industry as that’s been hit the hardest. How do we help them transition into other fields, industry sectors and jobs, and get them the skills training and, in some cases, degrees that will enable them to do that?

How College Students are Feeling about Changes to Education Surrounding COVID-19 Pandemic

Roxana Figiel, Celso Bahena Jr, Betsy Muñoz

Students in every sector of education have been affected by the pandemic – having to transition suddenly to online learning, and many university students having to return home, sometimes with only a few days’ notice. Like many of us, these students are worrying what next semester will look like, and they’re left wondering if this will affect the job market they’ll enter after college. We spoke with three current college students from around Arizona to get some ideas on what they’re thinking about right now and where they are finding hope for Arizona’s future. We believe strongly that student voices need to be heard and valued – so we wanted them to be the first people we spoke to for our Road to Attainment series. We also wanted to ensure we were getting a wide range of voices and opinions, so we spoke with 3 students from different backgrounds including an adult learner– a critical population to reach for the achievement of our 60% educational attainment goal.

Roxana Figiel is a student at Arizona State University working toward a bachelor’s degree in public service and public policy.

Celso Bahena Jr is an adult student currently studying Logistics at Pima Community College.

Betsy Muñoz is a first-generation Mexican American college student studying public service and public policy at Arizona State University.

What have been the main challenges you or other students in your community have faced because of COVID-19? 

Roxana: When we suddenly moved to online classes, I could see that my professors were struggling. One class ended up using Zoom, which was a completely new tool for that professor. At first, with the constant adjustments and new online programs, it was overwhelming to figure out how the requirements for the classes had changed. 

Celso: Communication is more subtle than it was before. But there are some positives – email and online methods have made it a little bit easier to get in contact with professors. At work, I’ve been in contact with more people because, instead of only interacting with my direct supervisor, I have to email others, and have gotten more acquainted with the chain of command.

Betsy: One of the greatest challenges for my peers and me is being disconnected from each other and not being able to learn, study, or be together. Video chatting does help provide part of that connection, but it is not the same as communicating in-person. Another challenge has been accessing jobs, internships, or career experiences since these have become more limited and their formats have changed. 

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Celso: There’s been a lot of talk about virtual hangouts and virtual classrooms. The availability of virtual learning means people can learn from anywhere. The future will be heavily technology-based. 

Betsy: We are talking about remote learning and what that means. There are students who do not have access to a computer or digital device, and this has affected their learning beyond the inequities already present in the education system. The future of education will need to address these challenges and identify strategies or innovative solutions toward closing this gap in ways we haven’t done before. 

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms?

Celso: Online teaching methods are being honed in and perfected. The kinks will be worked out. When schools re-open, these methods will be implemented into the mainstream public school system. 

Betsy: The use of technology and the increased use of digital learning. The use of technology will continue to increase, and students will need to be prepared and have technology resources available to them.

How do current students need to prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession? 

Roxana: Honestly, I am worried about what the future will hold for graduates. This recession won’t be over anytime soon, and the consequences will affect future graduates as well. They will be going out into a world that has new rules. Our internships were canceled, jobs weren’t providing enough hours, and businesses were closing, leaving us without the necessary experience companies look for in potential employees. 

Betsy:  Students will need to think about options they may not have considered before, because their education and career pathways may look different. This recession may discourage students from enrolling in courses that require hands-on training or encourage students to continue their post-secondary education beyond a bachelor’s degree. It would be beneficial for all students to try to gain career-related experiences wherever possible to better prepare themselves for the workforce during this recession.   

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Roxana: I think everyone has been an inspiration in these times. Seeing how each person decides to help themselves or others provides insight into what we value as individuals and as a society.

Celso: One of the people that continues to inspire me is the author, Christopher Hitchens. He always spoke about humanitarian values, how we must oppose aggression amongst each other, and instead look for the good in people, while enabling others to achieve that as well. 

Betsy: Seeing my nieces, who are between the ages of 6 and 9, continue their education from home and adapt to their new reality has been inspiring to me. I am also in awe of all the parents who are working from home and are trying to teach their kids at the same time. Or the parents who are working from home with little ones. Seeing all the teachers and my peers adjust to this new environment has been incredible to watch. Teachers made adjustments to their classes in such a short amount of time and students pushed themselves to continue their learning.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Roxana: Many people don’t know that they qualify for help and support in obtaining a degree. Providing that information allows them to make long term decisions for their future. COVID-19 has brought many underlying issues to the surface with no way to sweep them under the rug. Inequities need to be addressed and adults will need to reconsider education.

Celso: Social media is now more indispensable than ever. Arizonans will hopefully be helped by social media and nudged in the direction of education.

Betsy: My greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19 is for our education community to have the ability to provide more resources, identify strategies, and create solutions toward addressing the longstanding inequities in our system. There is no “one-size-fits-all” option for students.