Marana Unified School District Board Member Bill Kuhn was engrossed in conversation with the principal at Twin Peaks Elementary school about the merits of various forms of school testing when MUSD Superintendent Wade McLean grabbed him by the elbow.
"You missed it Bill," McLean said, his face beaming with amazement. "The teacher asked a student what the name of the coiled sucking tube that a butterfly uses as its mouth was, and without missing a beat, the student answered 'proboscis.' Can you believe that? Were you learning words like proboscis when you were in first grade?"
"Fantastic," Kuhn said, laughing, but clearly impressed. "It's just simply fantastic the things that you see these kids learning."
Every two weeks, Kuhn, 58, slips away from his job as a Realtor and into his position as an elected and unpaid school board member to spend his morning with McLean touring one of MUSD's 17 schools.
He'll return to the same school later in the evening and give a report of what he saw to his fellow board members, as well as the parents, students, teachers and administrators in attendance at the twice-monthly meeting of MUSD's governing board.
No state statute requires Marana's board members to tour the schools they oversee. Nor is there an Arizona Department of Education regulation mandating that MUSD pack up it's portable podium and move its governing board meetings like a traveling road show to different schools in the sprawling 550-square mile district
The tours by board members and rotation of the school board meetings to different school auditoriums developed as an informal policy, Kuhn said.
It's viewed primarily as a way for the board and administration to interact personally with as many of MUSD's more that 12,000 students and 1,300 employees as possible, rather than holding forth at formal board meetings in an administrative headquarters as most school districts in the Tucson area do.
"It serves a number of purposes," Kuhn said. "You get an idea of the educational climate at the school just by walking around and talking to people. It also shows the board and the administration care about what's going on in each school. It allows us to meet the people who our decisions are going to affect, and it just simply gives us a better understanding of what's going on. A teacher or principal may be reluctant to stand up at a podium and address the board with a problem. But when Wade and I are here in the schools, they can simply say 'hey, I've got a problem here.' or to just show us what's working well in the classroom."
Board members trade off the touring duties among the five-member board, but MUSD Governing Board Vice President Dan Post, a Marana farmer, is credited with beginning the tradition about five years ago and doing it for the longest period of time, McLean said.
"Dan and I had a conversation several years ago, and it came from a comment he made as we were talking that we never personalize our thanks to the teachers. So it began as him just going to the schools every two weeks and saying 'thank you for what you do for our kids,'" McLean said.
But the tours are not just a feel-good exercise, Kuhn said. Walking the school grounds and talking to students and staff have given him insight into problems, such as earlier this year when teachers and parent volunteers at Roadrunner Elementary School, 16651 W. Carmela Road, expressed concern about mold growing in two portable classrooms.
"The principal and staff pulled up the carpeting and showed me the damage, and then went through the steps they were taking to remediate the problem," Kuhn said. "When a parent brought up the problem later that night at the board meeting at Roadrunner, I was in a better position to explain what we were doing to correct the problem."
While other board members have filled in periodically, Kuhn and Post have assumed the bulk of the regular tour duties.
Kuhn, who was elected to the board eight years ago, took over the tour duties from Post last spring and has visited about 10 schools so far.
He began his tour of Twin Peaks May 17 by meeting with Principal Jane Ballesteros in her office. The school at 7995 W. Twin Peaks Road was one of two new elementary schools built last year in the fast growing district and had only been open since August 16.
"It's a new school and there's going to be a lot of new teachers," Kuhn told Ballesteros. "What I basically want to do is visit. I want to see every classroom, and everybody, as much as we possibly can without causing a disruption."
Ballesteros, who has worked as a principal in the district for 13 years, transferred from Ironwood Elementary School to oversee the more than 580 students at Twin Peaks. She began by briefing Kuhn and McLean on parents' comments about how the new building's architecture seemed to facilitate good security and the rising amount of parent involvement at the school.
"OK, I'm ready," Kuhn announced after his discussion with the principal. "I've got my walking shoes on."
He, McLean and Ballesteros would spend the next three hours walking the school grounds, beginning with the kindergarten classrooms and ending with the school nurse's office. In between classroom visits, the conversation ranged from the merits of different types of student testing to the problem of children who unthinkingly reach out and strip the leaves off any of the recently planted landscaping they happened to pass.
In the computer lab, Kuhn asked teacher Brenda Betts a steady stream of questions about the licensing requirements for new software, how many children could use it at a time, and how many days a week the school's children visited the lab.
To avoid disruptions, Ballesteros steered her bosses away from the handful of classrooms conducting tests, and the one room where children were receiving a fire safety lecture from a firefighter. But for the most part, Kuhn and McLean had the run of the place, entering classrooms or just greeting people as they strolled.
"Hi, I'm Wade McLean," the superintendent said, proffering a handshake to Custodian John Hanson. "The place looks great. Thanks for all your good work."
In the lunchroom, Kuhn went over a new menu with the kitchen staff amid the shrieks and shouts of children playing dodge ball a few feet away.
"Always offering cheeseburgers as an option to the regular meal was one of the smartest things we've done," Kuhn said. "If a kid doesn't like the regular menu on a given day, you can always fall back on cheeseburgers because every kid eats them."
In a kindergarten class, the children watched warily from the corners of their eyes as their principal and two strangers wearing ties stood quietly in their classroom. The students shot glances at Kuhn and McLean, but kept most of their quiet focus on their teacher's instructions for drawing a picture of Anthony, a character in a spelling book, and her suggestion of red as the proper crayon color to use for illustrating the ants that infested Anthony's pants.
The students were more boisterous in Christi Pettigrew's class after she introduced McLean and mentioned he was once her teacher at Marana High School.
"Did she get in trouble a lot?" shouted one of Pettigrew's students over the chorus of "oooooohhhh.".
"No, she was a very good student," answered McLean, who worked his way up through the ranks, beginning as a biology teacher at Marana High in the 1970s and eventually MUSD's superintendent in 1995. "And the reason she was such a good student was that she always listened to her teachers, which is the same advice I'll pass on to you."
McLean and Kuhn went on to visit the counselors and shook hands with the parent volunteers. They visited the learning disabled classrooms and the school's day care program, and looked at land set aside for future expansion of the school site. They wrapped up the tour observing the treatment of a bloody nose in the nurse's office, and then had a final meeting with Ballesteros.
The board member and superintendent pronounced their satisfaction with Twin Peaks, noting that no significant problems were found. However, both said Twin Peaks was less typical than some of the other schools they've toured in the past - for reasons beyond the fact that a newspaper reporter and photographer had accompanied them.
"We just had very successful salary negotiations with the teacher's union, so there is a pretty good feeling in the air. If the tour had taken place right before negotiations, I can tell you I would probably be getting an earful on that subject of teacher salary," McLean said.
"It was a new school, so there were fewer problems with the facility than at other schools," Kuhn said after the tour. "I was most impressed with the amount of kids that we found 'on task.' It seemed that every classroom we walked into the kids were steadily going about the work they were supposed to. And that's the kind of thing that you pick up just walking around and observing. My plan is to come back here tonight and say at the board meeting how well things are going at Twin Peaks, about how the school had a huge amount of parent volunteers, and how all the children seemed happy and content. Well, except for that little girl who was having a timeout in the corner in that one classroom. She was definitely having a bad day."