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'We need to create safe environments': As kids return to classrooms, safety is top priority for Mesa school officials

Thursday marks the first day back to school for 58,000 students in Mesa Public Schools.

MESA, Ariz. — Thursday marks the first day back to school for the largest school district in Arizona.

Mesa Public Schools are opening classroom doors once again following the summer break for the 58,000 students at their 82 schools.

Safety is top of mind

Walking into Lowell Elementary School, a lobby with a locked door and thick glass is what greets those visiting the school.

“Safety and student learning are things that I think about and worry about most,” Dr. Andi Fourlis, Superintendent of Mesa Public Schools said. “We need to create safe environments so that our children can learn at high levels.”

Fourlis said the district is making physical changes at their 82 schools by keeping all classroom doors locked including the front doors of the schools locked too.

To get in, Fourlis said there’s also a system of showing identification.

“While that might be a bit of an inconvenience, it's really important that we make sure that we have those secure environments throughout our school,” Fourlis said.

The district has already reviewed protocols with the Mesa Police Department and the addition of technology also aids in safety as well, Fourlis added.

“We have the ability for all of our principals to put their school into a lockdown remotely, so from their phone or from their computer. So it's a way of creating a communication very quickly,” she said.

Boosted budget

The $1 billion dollar investment in public education from the state legislature this year means $32 million in the district’s maintenance and operations budget and another $3 million in their capital budget.

“The last couple of years, as we've talked about has really been a struggle. And this is an opportunity for us to get back to the core business of schooling, which is to ensure that every child graduates ready for college career and community and that we do that in such a way that engages them,” Fourlis said.

Currently, the governing board and their employee groups are talking about how the money will be spent and what the highest priorities are.

“How are we going to be thoughtful about investing those dollars and where it's going to have the most impact on student outcomes,” Fourlis said.

Fourlis said that the aggregate expenditure limit, which is a constitutional cap in Arizona that limits how much money schools can spend, is looming too.

“We know that also in the background, we can have the best of plans, but we will not be able to spend those dollars unless we do a lot of work and collaborate with our legislature to lift the aggregate expenditure limit,” Fourlis said.

Working to retain and recruit teachers 

Fourlis said this year, learning is transforming with new instructional materials for language arts and math.

Additionally, the district is working to retain teachers through a partnership with ASU, aiming to have half of Mesa’s schools with teams of teachers working together by 2023.

“Distributing their expertise around the children that they serve, that is the way that we are going to retain teachers, and that is the way that we’re going to bring back joy to the teachers that are teaching in our classrooms,” Fourlis said.

As for recruitment, Fourlis said the district has a program called Path to Teach, which allows people with bachelor’s degrees to teach while working to get a certification in elementary or special education. To get the certificate, Mesa Public Schools experts teach those people without them having to pay tuition.

Fourlis said there are 80 people a part of that program this year.

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