PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Public school superintendents across Arizona identify teacher recruitment and a lack of family involvement as the top two obstacles to student success.

Administrators also listed challenges for rural school districts, student behavior and confusing state mandates as problems they deal with, which affect student learning.

This summer, CBS 5 News and 3 TV sent a survey to every school district in Arizona. One of the questions asked superintendents to list their top three challenges. Administrators from more than 100 districts responded.

[WATCH: Challenges schools face]

"Cost-of-living. Affordable housing. Those are issues here in Flagstaff that can make it challenging for us (to recruit and retain teachers)," said Mike Penca, who is the superintendent of the Flagstaff Unified School District.

Penca says it is more difficult to find paraprofessionals. Those are employees like teacher's aids and bus drivers.

Examples from administrators across the state include:

  • "Consistent reduction in state funding due to declining enrollment."
  • "Charter school competition. Not only the financial aspect, but the false belief that charters are automatically better."
  • "Testing students once per year on a high stakes test is not the best way to demonstrate overall knowledge; it only tests what the student knew on that day."
  • "Maintenance of our facilities."

Many of the responses related to a lack of state funding.

"It’s hard to go out and say, 'Look at our test scores.' Because we’re on par with the rest of the country, so we must be funding the schools adequately.

But then you look at what the other schools and districts across the country have that we don’t and you start seeing things like a librarian. You start seeing a counselor or social worker, teacher coaches," said Quinn Kellis, who is the superintendent of the Dysart School District.

Kellis says there are plenty of positions outside the actual classroom, which affect a student's entire school experience. They include counselors, social workers, librarians, cafeteria workers and school bus drivers.

Kellis argues that those positions are critical, but state leaders don't necessarily view them as vital to a student's education.

"We’re going to work as hard as we can to compete academically. But when you put that student in college, compared to a student from somewhere else in the country, they can’t compete side-by-side because they’ve had completely different experiences (in grade school and high school)," said Kellis.

The Dysart school district is undertaking a project to give a specific community identity to each of its 23 schools. The idea is to give this very large district the feel of a smaller, community-based school district. One school may focus on science and technology, while another will focus on liberal arts or sports. 

The Flagstaff Unified District is able to harness talent from the local community to help bolster its academics. Coconino High School is home to a champion robotics team. Schools in the district are known for their vocational courses, as well as their rigorous STEM curriculum.

Superintendent Mike Penca says the close proximity to Northern Arizona University, the Lowell Observatory and the Grand Canyon also helps.

"We benefit greatly from the partnerships and support we have. Just really talented experts in their field, who reside in this community and who want to give back and share their talents and their time," said Penca.

[SPECIAL SECTION: State of Our Schools, The Search for Solutions]

Morgan Loew's hard-hitting investigations can be seen weekdays on CBS 5 News at 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Copyright 2019 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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