Copper Canyon High School had a reputation that was extremely negative early in the schools existence, but over the past few years, the new administration and staff have turned the school around to the point it was awarded a gold medal from the Beat the Odds program.

The Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds program honors outstanding high schools, whose students who have overcome tremendous adversity, demonstrated academic excellence and given back to their communities. The program is focused on schools in lower economic and minority areas.

“We have a bronze, silver and now a gold that recognize the growth we have had here,” Principal Mindy Westover said.

The program requires three goals, including surveying staff during the first year, proving students are showing improvements and then showing change happening.

“The goal is what our kids need and creating collaborative solutions and that can come in different forms,” Westover said. “We went with ownership of all our students and creating student-based solutions for our kids that that philosophy has been huge here at Copper Canyon.”

School history

Copper Canyon High School is in the Tolleson Union High School District. The school opened its doors in August 2004 and had its first graduating class in May 2008. During the first few years, the school’s reputation preceded it in a negative way.

“We heard all the stories about how life was here at this school before I even got here seven years ago,” Westover said. “I would hear all the time how this was a rough school, and it was hard the first few years, but the staff and students have really worked hard to turn that around.”

Westover points to immense turnover of staff in the early years and the district working hard to get qualified teachers to join the staff and remain.

“Ten years ago, turnover was a factor and it has changed dramatically in the seven years I have been here,” Westover said. “Being fully staffed for the second year in a row, that has been one of the major improvements here for the students.”

As Westover is in her fourth year as principal, she said her staff is continuing to focus on raising grades and attendance levels, which have been evident in the school’s increased graduation rate and decreased absenteeism.

“I think the school opened in the middle of a major teacher crisis and, when you hire 30 to 40 teachers for a new school, it is a different environment and that had an impact when this school opened,” Westover said. “Stabilization has been key in teachers creating an environment that they enjoy and you need teachers that care about the students and that is one thing that has improved immensely over the past five to seven years here.”

She said more students are striving to reach academic goals by taking the AP tests, PSATs, and SATs and the staff continues to foster an environment that promotes the importance of both attendance and good grades.

“The kids have really bought into what staff is trying to do here and continues to do,” Westover said. “We have a program called PBIS, which stands for positive behaviors, intervention and support, and we have brought back pride in our campus with an amazing change.”

Gold medal

Westover said much of Copper Canyon’s improvements can be attributed to the Beat the Odds program.  Beat the Odds is aimed at raising student achievement in schools with mostly low-income, predominantly Latino students, by training principals in how to improve leadership skills, which research shows is among the most effective ways for under-performing schools to improve student achievement.

The Beat the Odds program was created in 2006 as part of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonpartisan think tank founded by former Arizona State University President Lattie Coor.

“I would say our staff, both administration and teachers, have a strong belief that all students can learn and they come to the table with solutions and interventions with how to help our kids and let them know that they can do anything they attempt,” Westover said. “The gold medal gives everyone here the recognition and it shows that we are making immense progress here at Copper Canyon.”

In November, the school celebrated the gold medal at an assembly to celebrate the school’s success in the Beat the Odds program. The school improved over three years from bronze to silver before getting the gold this year, but Westover said staff is focused on continuing the school’s improvements that have happened in her seven years.

“The goal is what our kids need and creating collaborative solutions and that can come in many different forms and we went with ownership of all of our students and creating student-based solutions for our kids and that philosophy has been huge,” Westover said. “PBIS has been massive here and focus on targeting things that, seven years ago, due to the fact we wanted kids to be safe, helpful, polite, responsive and courteous to everyone.”

In early November, leaders of the program presented Westover with the Beat the Odds Gold Award, recognizing that under her leadership, the school showed continued improvement in raising student achievement over three successive years. Of the more than 200 principals who have participated, Westover and Copper Canyon are among the 54 to receive a Gold Award.  

She added that the gold shows the school has done wonders in changing the perception of the school.

“That tells me our kids are responding and the commitment they have made and shows that everyone who wanted to be here is now committed to everything involved with academics.”