Upset parents, confused children and signs that read “Save our school” have become a familiar sight in the East Valley in the last few years.
From Tempe and Chandler to Mesa and Apache Junction, school district governing boards have made the decision to close neighborhood schools due to declining enrollment and finances, especially in the last five years.
But in many of those cases, the districts don’t necessarily say they’re “closing a school.” Instead, many say they’re “repurposing” a campus — moving existing students out of the campus to make room for a program or educational method that’s proven to be popular with parents.
This year, Mesa Unified School District opened Franklin at Brimhall and Chandler Unified School District opened Arizona College Preparatory – Erie Campus. Last year, Brimhall was Brimhall Junior High School. The prior year, Erie was Erie Elementary.
Chandler is making another transition with Knox Elementary School, which is becoming Knox Gifted Academy. But rather than move students out of Knox all at once, the district is taking a phased approach.
Last week, Gilbert Unified School District announced a proposal to close Gilbert Junior High School as a neighborhood campus and move the growing Gilbert Classical Academy into its space.
The academy is in its sixth year and has nearly 400 students, with more than 100 on a waiting list. Gilbert Junior High has declined in enrollment from more than 1,000 students in 2003 to just more than 600 today.
While many families that attend Gilbert Classical Academy are happy about plans to have a bigger facility, families at Gilbert Junior High are making their frustration and disappointment known.
Making changes in Chandler
About five years ago, Chandler Unified School District surveyed families and asked them what type of school they would be attracted to. Many liked the idea of a traditional academy, with focus on academic learning and rigor and school uniforms.
At the time, Goodman Elementary School saw declining enrollment as children in the neighborhood got older, but new children did not move into the area.
Out of that, the district started Chandler Traditional Academy — Goodman campus, the first “repurposed” campus in the district.
Again a few years ago, the district saw enrollment dropping at Erie Elementary School in the northern part of its boundaries. At the time, Chandler was renting space at a church to operate a college prep program — Hamilton Prep. The idea was popular, with students on a waiting list.
So by moving the program to Erie, the district not only saved the $100,000 annual rental fee, it saved on administrative costs.
“The savings wasn’t that we paid $100,000 for renting a school, it’s the fact that we have one less elementary school,” district spokesman Terry Locke said. “When we closed Erie Elementary, we helped Hartford Sylvia Encinas, Conley and San Marcos because we bolstered those numbers at those schools. We saved $900,000 on administrative costs by closing a school,” he said.
With more than 10,000 fewer students than it had a decade ago, Mesa Unified School District started making changes in 2009.
Since then, three junior high schools — Powell, Mesa and Brimhall — have all closed as neighborhood schools. Powell is now the Mesa Education Center, with the district’s community education department and smaller alternative schools located on-site. Brimhall now houses a back-to-basics program for kindergarten through 12th grade. Mesa Junior High’s fate is tied up in school and city bond elections in November.
Mesa governing board president Steven Peterson said each community hearing about the closures was difficult.
“I think everyone there knew we needed to take care of excess capacity. The only argument was, ‘Don’t close ours,’” Peterson said. “It’s tough as a school board member to sit there as you have the seventh-grade class president in his school shirt with his classmates behind him holding up signs that say ‘Save our school’ and he delivers a well-written speech. We’re excited that they’re passionate about their schools, but the bottom line is we can’t justify the costs of maintaining all the schools open. The kids were still going to get their education. We had the capacity (on other campuses) and we created the resources with busing to accommodate their needs.”
Mesa may be doing this again in the future as it looks at excess capacity at its elementary schools.
With stagnant enrollment, and declining pockets in aging communities, Gilbert is taking a page from Mesa and Chandler this year. The district’s strategic plan adopted in June points out a desire to look at enrollment and “maximize school resources.” It also includes discussion on expanding the Gilbert Classical Academy, which opened six years ago.
The proposal going to the governing board on Tuesday will change the boundaries at five of the district’s six junior high schools. It will move Gilbert Junior High students to other campuses — ones where enrollment is below capacity. Students in the current Gilbert Junior High boundaries will be bused to their new schools.
It’s a tough sell for those families since Gilbert Junior High for many is literally in their backyard. The school’s attendance area is the smallest of all Gilbert junior high schools.
But the district is betting that expansion of the Gilbert Classical Academy will not only draw in students from surrounding school districts — and each student provides more revenue — but will keep students from leaving Gilbert district to attend a charter school or specialty program like a traditional academy in Chandler or a Franklin school in Mesa.
Superintendent Dave Allison noted the change in Arizona’s education fabric during the meeting with Gilbert Junior High families last Tuesday.
“In the early 1990s and before that, a parent would pick a neighborhood and send their students to that neighborhood public school. That’s not the case anymore in Arizona,” he told them. “With the stop in the rapid growth, we had to refocus and instead of just reaching to something, we had to be proactive and look ahead to the future.”
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