SIERRA VISTA — “Educators, parents and communities need to work together as a system to give kids motivation, purpose and direction,” Jacqui Clay, Cochise County Superintendent of Schools, said during the 2020 Innovations in Education Conference earlier this week.

With its “A Learning Community for Student Success” theme, the conference is designed to bring training to the community in a more accessible format for everyone, Clay said.

“For us to be a learning community, we have to learn together and work on strategies to sustain long-term educational and community relationships.”

The third annual Innovations in Education Conference ran Friday and Saturday at the Cochise College Sierra Vista campus, where it kicked-off with more than 200 attendees on Friday, but numbers dipped on Saturday.

As part of her “working together in partnership” message, Clay said that businesses communities need to understand the importance of investing in education.

“The kids of this community are our future, so let’s do what it takes to keep them in Cochise County,” she said. “We need to stop importing kids out of this county by providing them with the motivation and direction to keep them here. The year 2020 is our year for perfect vision and clarity.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman also spoke at the conference Friday morning, with her message following Clay’s.

Hoffman, who was elected to the state superintendent position in November 2018, assumed office in January 2019.

She spoke about her first year in office as state superintendent and her commitment of staying closely connected with Arizona’s schools, teachers and community members.

“When I took this role as superintendent, I was told this was an administrative job…” working behind a desk, Hoffman said.

But sitting behind a desk is not Hoffman’s style. In her first year as superintendent, she visited all 15 counties and 85 schools as she listened to the remarkable work that is happening in public education, as well as the challenges that different communities face.

Every educational community comes with unique concerns, Hofman said. With nearly 25 percent of teaching positions going unfilled across the state, Hoffman spoke of the importance of finding ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention. As teachers retire, the problem is even more prevalent, especially in rural communities, the superintendent noted.

In her concluding remarks, Hoffman said she plans to continue traveling the state and visiting schools in order to hear from educators first-hand.

She also intends to share both success stories and concerns with legislators and will be extending an invitation for them to go on school visits with her.

In his message about inclusion in schools, Arizona 2019 Teacher of the Year Kareem Neal spoke of his experiences as a special education teacher at Maryvale High School in Phoenix.

“My classroom has always been my family,” said Neal, who is now in his 23rd year as a teacher and was the conference keynote speaker. “I have my students the whole four years of high school, so we have to be a family.”

Neal said that as he started teaching, he realized that kids with special needs require a very different teaching approach than what is used in regular classrooms.

He also spoke of how people are often not comfortable when around kids with Down’s syndrome, autism and severe cognitive delays, even in situations where schools have worked hard to build “better school communities.”

“Some schools are super connected, however even in schools like that, we don’t really see the students that I work with,” Neal said.

“I feel enriched and happy because of my opportunity to work with these kids,” said Neal, who also spoke of the importance of “uplifting and highlighting” both student and teacher successes.

“When we’re out there in the world and we get an opportunity to talk about our amazing profession, we need to highlight our teachers.”

Neal specializes in community-based training, which is designed to help students with special needs become as independent and productive as they can be at home, in school and around their communities.

Both days of the conference were filled with hour-long break-out sessions that touched on a wide range of topics.

Teachers received eight hours of continuing education credits each day they attended the event.

Overall, reaction to the conference was positive.

“All of the speakers were excellent, but I really enjoyed Kareem Neal,” Benson Primary School Assistant Principal Candice Rogers said on Friday. “It’s obvious that his passion for special needs students comes from his heart, and I thought his inclusion message was great. It’s something we’re trying to work on in Benson.”

Caitlin Monreal, a Benson Middle School sixth-grade teacher said she enjoyed hearing from Hoffman, and applauds the superintendent’s willingness to make herself so accessible to teachers and the educational community in general.

“Superintendent Hoffman’s emphasis on visiting schools across the state to see firsthand what all the different school cultures are like is something I really appreciate,” Monreal said. “I was also pleased to hear about her emphasis on the importance of keeping kids safe, and her push for more funding to accomplish that.”

Another Benson Middle School teacher, Michelle Scott, teaches sixth-grade language arts. Friday’s conference marked the second year she attended the Innovations event.

“I like hearing the presentations and learning about new educational trends and programs,” Scott said. “Kareem Neal’s message about family connections and making students your family really resonated with me. I thought he was an excellent presenter.

Cochise County Dean of Workforce Development Karl Griffor, who attended both days of the conference, said the event continues to improve and grow every year.

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “This is our third year, and it’s steadily growing in the number of presenters. The breakout sessions that I attended were very well planned and executed.”

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