About 40 years ago, the once segregated Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Mesa was closed.
In its place, Washington Activity Center eventually rose up to serve the historic Washington Park-Escobedo community, providing a spot for families to gather and children to go after their classes in other schools ended.
Soon, the area will have a school again.
On Saturday, registration will begin for STEP UP, a new venture by the founders and leaders of Edu-Prize, an honored charter school with locations in Gilbert and Pinal County.
Funding for the Washington Activity Center has been dwindling and teetering on extinction for several years. The city of Mesa sought out a partner to keep programming operating at the center.
Last year, Edu-Prize founder and superintendent Lynne Robershotte was approached. That launched a series of events, from a community “movie night” to introduce Edu-Prize to neighbors, to a vote last month, that have resulted in a lease agreement between Edu-Prize and the city.
The school will begin its lease July 1, with classes scheduled to start later that month.
What Robershotte notes as the biggest difference for this new school is the fact that Edu-Prize is coming to the community, rather than students seeking out Edu-Prize.
“Our goal is to give this remarkable community, that has been a long-standing neighborhood, the best of the best,” she said.
The campus could start with as many as 80 students in preschool through sixth grade. Since Edu-Prize likes to keep class sizes small — and with only four classrooms available at the Washington Activity Center — there likely will be no more than 100 students ever on the campus. Robertshotte would like to see STEP UP expand to eighth grade in the future.
The school’s name stands for its focus: science, technology, economics and philosophy in a college prep environment.
With the lease agreement, Edu-Prize will continue offering after-school programs for youth and adults in the neighborhood — on its own dime, Robershotte pointed out.
Bruce Nelson grew up in the neighborhood and attended the segregated Booker T. Washington School. He’s tracking the community’s history in a film, “North Town.” The school was desegregated after “Brown v. Board of Education” in the 60s, but it continued to draw mostly students from the community until it was closed in the early 1970s, he said.
Nelson said there was some opposition to the plan from a few community members, but he believes the community will embrace the school a with all it's going to offer, from high quality education to dance classes for students after school and education classes for adults.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity. It really is,” Nelson said. “There were some people protesting about that, but this is where you talk about the history of that fight,” and the fact that a school once sat on that property.
Nelson added: “It’s come back to a school, now without the negative tone. It’s positive. Now it’s a school again. It’s inclusive. I think they’re going to thrive.”
Robershotte said she wants to “knock on every door in the community” to make sure they get the first opportunity to know about the school. Charter schools in Arizona are public schools that are run independently, but must welcome all students.
“I think folks who have moved away, who still have family there, are going to come back. A girl who used to live in the projects wants to have her granddaughter go there,” Nelson said.
Besides the new focus, the school will operate on a 200-day school year (vs. the typical 180 days) and on an extended day — with classes 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Registration will start during Saturday’s “Honoring the past and embracing the future” celebration to mark the first anniversary of the Alson House and the 35th anniversary of the Washington Activity Center.
The event will be held 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the center, 44 E. Fifth St., Mesa.
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