Veteran Casa Grande principal discusses school successes and building a culture of achievement

LIVING: Tell us a little about your background in education.

Jeff Lavender: I became the principal at Ironwood Elementary School in 1996 after being a classroom teacher for five years in the Balsz School District in East Phoenix. After my first year as a principal at Ironwood, Dr. Frank Davidson became District Superintendent and Dr. Garry Bond joined him on the district staff as Assistant Superintendent. This movement created an administrative vacancy at Casa Grande Junior High, and Dr. Davidson selected me to fill the vacancy. I served as principal at Casa Grande Junior High School for four years before being selected to open Cactus Middle School in 2001. In 2007, I was selected to open Villago Middle School, where I presently serve as principal.

LIVING: We understand that you’ve been involved in three different A+ School of Excellence Awards.

Jeff Lavender: In 2007, Cactus Middle School was named an “A+ School of Excellence” by the Arizona Education Foundation during its first year of eligibility, becoming the first school in Pinal County and only middle school in Arizona to receive the honor that year. Since I’ve been at Villago Middle School, we’ve twice been recognized as an “A+ School of Excellence” – the first in 2013 and again this year.

LIVING: Tell us more about the A+ recognition program.

Jeff Lavender: The Arizona Education Foundation started the “A+ School of Excellence” recognition program in 1983 as an avenue to highlight and share the great things taking place in public schools. There is an extensive and time-consuming application process that requires schools to evaluate themselves on every aspect of their culture, programs, academics and leadership.

LIVING: It sounds like quite a rigorous process to complete and submit the application.

Jeff Lavender: You are correct. The application process is lengthy and requires us to address seven key factors that impact a school’s success: instructional leadership, curriculum, support programs, professional development, school culture, parent/community support and indicators of success like academic achievement.  The application requires that we provide a summary of those seven key areas along with the mission and vision of the school. Each of the three applications we have submitted totaled about 25 full pages of narrative information about the school and took a couple of months to complete.

LIVING: How is a school selected to receive the A+ Award?

Jeff Lavender: Applications are due in mid-January and a team of judges reviews the applications and selects schools to receive visits. A+ School Visits consist of a team of practicing educators from other A+ Schools who spend one full day and second half-day at the school verifying the information that was written in the application. The judges start the visit with a tour from student leaders. They spend the rest of the full day visiting classrooms and observing the school procedures and culture. The second day the judges meet with stakeholders in separate meetings. Those separate meetings include certified staff, support staff, students, parent/community members and the final meeting is with the administration. The judges report their observations and make recommendations to the Arizona Education Foundation, which makes the final decision.

LIVING: With all the other demands on your time, why do you take on this process?

Jeff Lavender: The greatest benefit of the A+ application process is the reflection and analysis it requires of us. Our students deserve the very best schools we can create, and the application makes us do some serious reflection. We must analyze and scrutinize every aspect of our school and ask ourselves the tough questions.  As you can imagine, writing a 25-page narrative is extensive. As we write and review the application, we realize the things we are doing very well and the things we are not focusing on that are important. The visit from the judges is also the best external evaluation of a school that I have seen in my 21 years of being a principal. The judges are only here for one-and-a-half days, but they do get a real sense of the school and the culture during their time on campus. The feedback we received from the judges is very valuable in improving the school. Although we are an A+ School, we are far from perfect and we gain helpful insights on what it takes to be a great school. In 2013, one of the things the judges shared with me about Villago was that we had a tight academic focus, but that students who are dealing with emotional struggles may not be getting the tools they need to cope with the stress they have in their lives. As a result of that feedback, we stepped up our efforts to address social and emotional intelligence and that was highlighted by the judges as a strength this year

LIVING: You have received three A+ Awards at two different schools. How have you managed to experience high levels of success at two different schools?

Jeff Lavender: As a principal I always try to base decisions on what is in the best interest of students.  I also try to focus on why educators got into the profession in the first place. Our teachers and our support staff love our students and we genuinely want to do what is best for them. We refer to this as teaching from the heart.  It is also important that we recognize and celebrate that our educators are making a difference in the lives of the students they teach each day. Casa Grande is very fortunate to have dedicated educators who teach from the heart and unleash their power to make a difference each day in our schools. When teachers and staff feel supported and are given the tools to make a difference, great things happen.  The credit truly belongs to the dedicated staff and the great support we receive from the community.

LIVING: Speaking of the community, how do you go about engaging staff, parents and community members in the A+ process?

Jeff Lavender: Each year I provide the staff, parents and community members, and students an update on how we are performing. I complete a “State of the School” report that is shared with various stakeholders. We track key indicators of success to ensure we are doing what is necessary to increase academic achievement and adhere to our District Mission Statement of, “Success for Everyone, the Responsibility is Yours and Mine.” We are always open to suggestions from stakeholders on how we can improve the school. While we love the awards and the recognition, the real power of the A+ program is that it makes us get better and requires that we listen to staff, students, parents and members of the community.

LIVING: Why is it important for schools to be recognized with awards like this?

Jeff Lavender: Quite simply, success creates a success. Research supports that the way you think is one of the most powerful predictors of your success. At Villago, we focus on a growth mindset as our tool to drive home the importance of positive and successful thinking and actions. For example, even though the Arizona Cardinals have won more playoff games in the last 20 years than the Dallas Cowboys, 6-to- 2, nobody could reasonably argue that the Cardinals are a better franchise than the Cowboys, given that Dallas has five Super Bowl rings and the Cardinals zero. I am not comparing the A+ Award to winning a Super Bowl other than it is the highest award we can achieve as a school. Because of our success as a two-time A+ School,” we can use phrases like “Once a Titan Always a Titan,” “The Titan Way” and “Villago Strong,” and have them signify our legacy of success. We celebrate A+ Awards like NFL teams celebrate championships, and we display the banners as proudly as the Cowboys display their five Lombardi Trophies. I have seen a positive shift in the mindsets of our students and staff as a result of the A+ Awards we have achieved.

LIVING: The Casa Grande Elementary School District has received more A+ awards than any other school district in Pinal County. What do you think is special about the school district?

Jeff Lavender: Dr. Todd Whitaker, an educational leadership expert, says one of the things that great school districts do is focus on people, not programs. When I first came to Casa Grande in 1996, my plan was to stay for a couple of years in order to gain the experience I needed to pursue a high school principal position in the Valley. What I found in Casa Grande made me stay. We have dedicated educators and a community that supports its children. We have, and have had, wonderful governing board members, who have served and supported education and who have been key factors in our success. The administrators and district office staff also support each other in pursuing the best interests of students. It is also really important to take note of the impact of our superintendent, Dr. Frank Davidson. He has been the driving force for the past 24 years. Because of his leadership and guidance, the Casa Grande Elementary School District is the most awarded and recognized school district in Pinal County. Frank will be missed after he retires in June. However, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with our new Superintendent, Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, and I am very confident she is the right choice to replace Dr. Davidson.

For more information about the schools, programs, or employment opportunities in the Casa Grande Elementary School District go to or call 520-836-2111.