The Mesa district needs to move forward with transitioning ninth-graders to the high schools in two phases to keep the move manageable and efficient, if the governing board approves the plan, Superintendent Mike Cowan told the board members Tuesday evening.
The proposal is one of seven on the table made by Mesa Unified School District administrators. The proposal includes moving ninth-graders to Dobson, Westwood and Skyline high schools next school year and to Mesa, Mountain View and Red Mountain high schools the following school year.
The district’s governing board met in a study session Tuesday night for the first time since teachers, staff and parents were invited to comment during two public hearings.
In late summer, Cowan convened a committee to explore possible changes for the 67,000-student district in light of declining enrollment and a decreasing budget.
Of the current seven suggestions, the idea of moving ninth-graders to the existing 10th- through 12th-grade high schools has received a lot of talk from the community.
While most e-mails and statements at public hearings seem to support the idea, there has been a growing number from the community who want the district to make the change en masse, rather than in phases.
Cowan told the governing board Tuesday night that the idea to move students in phases follows national research about changing grade configurations in school districts.
“In every situation, it has been a multiple phase project,” he said. He said the district moves student populations each year — with ninth-graders currently transitioning to high schools and sixth-graders transitioning to junior highs. The district has experience doing this, he said.
Cowan noted that he’s talked to the district’s transportation, athletic, administrative and technical services departments about what needs to be done. He said all agreed they could manage the ninth-grade move in two phases.
“This recommendation is driven first and foremost by the aspect to maximize educational opportunities for our students,” he said. “Not only for our high schools, but it affords our junior highs an opportunity to be more flexible in their curricular offerings. It also provides us with ongoing savings with costs associated with administration and the running of academic programs and athletic programs across our districts.”
Cowan said the district may look at a two-lunch period model at the high schools to accommodate the additional students. And because three junior high schools split their populations among different high schools, there could be plans to move those small groups — ranging from 100 to 220 students — to their respective high schools next year, rather than having to wait.
Board president Mike Hughes wanted to make sure the public knows the changes being proposed are to “enhance the academic program” for students in the district’s high schools.
“I feel good about what we’re trying to do,” he said. “There’s no way we can make everybody happy, but I feel satisfied with what we’re trying to do, especially in the Dobson Ranch area. It won’t only enhance their choices, but it could bring in more students.”
If the recommended proposals are approved, the district’s boundary committee would convene to address changes for Powell Junior High, as well as Alma Elementary. The district is recommending program changes on both campuses, with Powell being converted to a community learning center and Alma Elementary becoming a Franklin, back-to-basics school.
The boundary committee’s actions would not involve the high school proposal, nor would it involve a districtwide mass change, though some comments have called for one, Cowan told the board.
Board members said they have a number of concerns regarding “neighborhood schools.” They said they want to be able to maintain that as much as possible, and appreciate the administration’s attempt to do that.
Many of the proposed changes — from moving East Valley Academy students to the planned Powell Learning Center to moving programs in strip mall locations to existing school campuses — leave the neighborhood schools largely untouched.
But board members said they realize that in the future — later phases of the “Defining the Future” project — may mean more changes because of enrollment and budget issues.
In one small proposal change from the administration, Cowan said the district is recommending that the proposal to transition Alma Elementary to a Franklin, back-to-basics school happen in two phases. It would mean next year the school could hold kindergarten through sixth grade, with seventh and eighth grade added in the future. Alma families currently at the school would be invited to stay there. The boundary committee would need to eliminate Alma as a neighborhood elementary school offering from the district’s attendance boundaries because Franklin schools are traditionally open-enrollment campuses.
The next hearing for public comment will be Jan. 12. The board also plans to vote on the recommendations that same day.
“I have absolute confidence in the teachers, the support staff and the administration around this table that regardless of what your decision, our quality programs will continue to be offered in Mesa public schools,” Cowan said.