July 25, 2004
Tempe High School principal Anna Battle bristles when people call her school old.
Although Tempe High opened in 1908, before Arizona received statehood, and moved to its current location near Arizona State University in 1953 before Battle was born, the principal sees many things new when she looks through floor-to-ceiling windows in her office onto the school’s main courtyard.
Thanks to a $25 million renovation completed in 2001, the year before Battle arrived as principal, many of the school’s facilities are state of the art.
And thanks to an alliance formed about five years ago with Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital next door and Mesa Community College, the school boasts a thriving nursing academy that offers college credit to its graduates.
But Tempe High has not avoided all of the challenges common at aging Valley schools.
Historically, older schools lag academically and socially behind their newer counterparts. And in the East Valley, where new schools keep popping up as the region expands, students have more choices through open enrollment and charter schools.
Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU, said the challenges that Tempe High faces are similar to the challenges that forced the closure of Scottsdale and Phoenix Union high schools in the 1980s and the relocation of Gilbert and Mesa high schools in the same era.
Only Chandler High School, which opened in 1922, has survived from the early 1900s at its original location in the East Valley.
"This ain’t Detroit," Melnick said. "Unlike many schools back East where neighborhoods have not changed in decades, we have a very rapidly growing, changing metropolitan area."
The neighborhoods that feed into Tempe High have grown less affluent over the decades as development has pushed outward into Ahwatukee Foothills and Chandler.
Test scores have declined. The number of English learners has increased.
Some parents of honors students say the school that was good enough for their older children is not good enough for their younger ones.
And many teachers have left. This summer about one in five Tempe High teachers resigned, including the drama, band, orchestra, choir and both dance teachers.
Tempe High enrollment also has dipped over the decades and leveled off in recent years at about 1,350 students — about half as many students as Desert Vista High School serves on the fringes of the Tempe Union High School District in Ahwatukee Foothills.
Tina Norgren is one parent who has lost faith in Tempe High.
She sent her three older children to Tempe High as honors students but decided in May to send her 14-year-old son as a freshman to McClintock High School about three miles away. Norgren said the younger son is not an honors student, and she was nervous about the quality of education he would receive at Tempe High.
Although many students and parents praise Tempe High’s intimate setting, small schools historically have a harder time offering the same range of classes as larger schools. Desert Vista, for example, can fill an advanced foreign language class or specialized band class much easier than Tempe High.
Although Battle said no class subjects have been canceled at Tempe High since her arrival, she acknowledged that the school has had to combine some elective courses and offer fewer sections of others.
This has left some teachers, parents and students frustrated.
"As an electives teacher, I felt like I was put on the back burner all the time," said Denise Ferguson, Tempe High’s drama teacher for the last seven years who left on good terms this summer for a teaching position in Peoria.
Tempe High junior Tara Dudden, 16, said she also thought about leaving Tempe High after many of her friends in the honors program transferred to other schools.
"In my group, a big chunk of students are leaving," said Dudden, a dance student with a 3.93 grade point average. "I think people are freaking out because of all the teachers who left."
Dudden said she decided to stay because she likes the diversity of students at Tempe High and the close-knit school community.
"I love Tempe High School, and I am so sad to watch it fall apart," said Dudden’s mother, Sandra, who has substitute taught at Tempe High about once a week for 15 years. "This is not like a school inflamed, but it’s close."
Battle said she recognizes concerns over the range of courses offered at Tempe High and has tried to assure the community that the campus will remain a comprehensive school with healthy fine arts, foreign language and honors programs.
Many longtime Tempe residents stand ready to help.
Sen. Harry Mitchell, DTempe, graduated from Tempe High in 1958 and then returned as a social studies teacher from 1964 to 1992. During these years, he also served as a Tempe city councilman and then as mayor.
He said many Tempe High graduates have stayed in the area and have a
deep loyalty to the school.
"It’s in the old part of town, and it represents tradition," Mitchell said. "It’s the namesake. Tempe High School was Tempe."
Joe Arredondo, Tempe High’s 1960 student body president, said the community revolved around Tempe High for years.
Arredondo has a daughter who teaches at Tempe High, another daughter who is a governing board member in the district and a granddaughter who started her junior year at Tempe High this month.
"As far as the curriculum and teachers go, they’re right up there with the best," Arredondo said. "I wouldn’t hesitate to send my kids there."
Although the natural course of urban development has brought increased poverty to the Tempe High area, Melnick said the cycle has started to turn in the school’s favor.
Shade trees tower over the carports, alleys and narrow streets in the well-maintained neighborhoods around Tempe High, and the single-story brick houses common in the area have started to regain their value.
A recent report from Boston-based real estate researcher Fiserv CSW shows a 50 percent increase in average home resale value from 1998 to 2003 in the 85281 ZIP code that includes Tempe High and ASU.
"At some point in time, the pendulum swings back," Melnick said.
The oldest East Valley high schools 1908: Mesa High School (moved to current site in 1973) 1909: Tempe High School (moved to current site in 1953) 1914: Gilbert High School (moved to current site in 1987) 1922: Chandler High School 1923: Scottsdale High School (closed in 1983) 1959: Arcadia High School in northeast Phoenix 1961: Westwood High School in Mesa 1965: McClintock High School in Tempe
Source: Tribune research