Maps lined one wall of the conference room. More covered a center table. By each circle - which represented a school - were numbers showing how many students the campus had, over or under capacity: 184 under; 472 under; 469 under.
Mesa Unified School District is at a crossroads, again. For the third year in a row, governing board members came together for a summer meeting to discuss enrollment and capacity.
Phrases tossed around included "closing schools," "repurposing schools" and "reprogramming."
Board members acknowledged it wouldn't be easy - or popular. But given that there are more than 4,000 empty seats in the district's junior high schools alone, they also acknowledged something needs to be done - and soon.
Bottom line: When classes open for the 2012 school year, where students attend school in Mesa may look very different from where they attend school when they return August 2011.
As Mesa's population has gone through transition, whether because of the economy, job availability, housing or politics, the district has seen a drastic decline of children. Last year, more than 2,000 fewer students showed up than the year before. That number is much closer to 2,800 next year, district administrators project.
East Valley school district governing boards are finding themselves in these tough-decision scenarios more frequently. From Chandler to Mesa to Apache Junction and Tempe, district boards have voted to close schools or change the focus of a campus in order to address enrollment patterns and parental choice.
It can stir up emotions in communities. This past spring, hundreds - if not thousands - of parents came together to fight changes in the Tempe Elementary School District. In the end, a middle school was closed and four elementary schools were merged into two. Chandler is making longer-term plans to bring a college prep program out of rented space at a church and into an elementary school campus that's seen its student population drop.
For Mesa, this is round two. In 2010, the board voted to close Powell Junior High School. Alma Elementary School was flipped from a neighborhood campus to a back-to-basics focus. Other smaller programs were moved out of under-used facilities and into one at Powell.
As a parent, it can make your stomach sink when your school is the subject for change.
But it can also create opportunities.
One idea discussed in-depth during Mesa's board meeting Tuesday was bringing the learning model pioneered by principal Mike Oliver at Zaharis Elementary School to another campus, perhaps closer to some of Mesa's southern neighbors. At Zaharis, in northeast Mesa, teachers and staff put reading at the center of all learning, with books lining walls and some classrooms offering not-so-formal set-ups where students can freely move.
It's so popular that 200 more students than the campus was originally planned for attend classes at Zaharis. Parents of 40 out-of-district students drive their kids there every day.
The district is also exploring how - and where - to put a "blended learning" model into place, one where students receive part of their learning online with guidance from a teacher - or several teachers. And since the district is in the last phase of moving ninth-graders from the junior highs into the high schools, board members suggested there may be opportunities to create kindergarten-through-eighth grade campuses.
Before ending the discussion on enrollment and schools, longtime board member Mike Hughes and board president Steven Peterson gave a simple direction to Cowan - one agreed upon by the entire five-member board:
Come back to us with recommendations. Make them tough. Cut deep. Be creative. Give us options.
Then let us make the tough decision. We're ready to do it. We need to do it.
And we're prepared to do it for change to start happening in 2012.