December 7, 2004
On a warm, sunny October morning, sixth-grader Michael Kuzman makes his way to Gilbert’s Spectrum Elementary for his first day in a new school.
His family moved from California a week before, so he and his sister slip through the droves of parents and school buses dropping off students.
They join their new classmates on the playground before the first bell rings.
It’s midsemester and cliques are already formed, best-friends proclaimed. Michael walks over to where his new classmates will line up before marching into school to start the day. He slides into the back of the line, his towhead a little low. He seems nervous as if it’s just hit him — he’s the new kid in school.
Michael’s trepidation is shortlived, however. Here at Spectrum, just about every kid is the new kid.
The school, part of the Gilbert Unified School District, was built last year. The number of students has mushroomed from about 500 students to 950 in less than a year, the majority coming in over the summer.
Registrar Kim Scibelli looks tired as she reviews six folders representing the students who will begin their lives as Spectrum All-Stars on the same day as Michael. "We average about six a week," she says.
The numbers increase after breaks in the school calendar and at the beginning and in the middle of months — the times most home sales close. Sometimes, she registers 15 to 20 children in a week, she says.
Scibelli takes it all in stride, though. She laughs and talks about the school song, performed to the tune of Smash Mouth’s No. 1 hit single "All Star."
In Smash Mouth’s version, there’s a line "The hits start coming and they won’t stop coming." At Spectrum, they’ve changed the words to reflect the school’s culture. Here, they sing "The kids start coming and they won’t stop coming"
Looking out from the playground there are at least 10 houses in various stages of construction. It’s a safe bet that there will be even more kids coming.
Scibelli and the school’s principal, Michael Hallock, aren’t caught totally off-guard by the number of students enrolling at their school.
The district opened Spectrum in 2003 to take some of the pressure off a bursting-at-the-seams Ashland Ranch Elementary, located about a mile north.
Both schools are in the 85296 ZIP code, one of the fastest growing urban areas in the United States. The entire Gilbert district has four high schools, six junior high schools and 24 elementary schools within a 62-square-mile radius.
One high school, three junior high schools and four elementary schools are within the ZIP code.
Finley Farms Elementary School was one of the first built in 85296. The school, located about three miles from Spectrum, experienced record growth in the late 1990s. This year is the first in which it has seen enrollment drop.
Principal John Maas opened Finley Farms in 1998. Sitting in his office today, he asks, almost to himself, "Would I do it again? "
Maas pauses for a moment. "We’ve really created something wonderful here," he says. "I wouldn’t run away from the challenge of opening a new school, but . . ." The thought goes unfinished.
Maas says he empathizes with Spectrum’s growing pains. He’s had firsthand experience.
The first year Finely Farms opened, maximum enrollment was projected to be about 400 to 500 students. By the end of the year, 800 students were jamming the halls. By the beginning of the following school year, enrollment shot to a record 1,300 students. The school was built to educate about 1,000 students comfortably.
To alleviate the pressure, school officials added four portable buildings.
"Even today, our special rooms are classrooms," Maas says. "We’ve never used our general music room for music and our strings room is a third-grade classroom."
The portables and special classrooms are the least of the issues facing rapidly
Parents picking up students create traffic jams. Fast-food takes on a new meaning as, suddenly, a 45-minute lunch period is not long enough to feed all the students. Playgrounds’ open fields disappear in a sea of students. Even fun assemblies become a scheduling nightmare.
Textbooks also have to be taken into consideration as the district struggles to allocate resources. Maas remembers putting out an e-mail asking his fellow Gilbert elementary schools for just "a few more fifth-grade math books."
Maas says he’s not surprised by the amount of growth in Gilbert. For him, it comes down to "if you build it they will come."
Looking at the commercial and new-home construction, he might be on to something. Part of the allure of 85296 is big homes in pristine neighborhoods for a fraction of the cost in other parts of the country.
But, he could as easily be talking about the reputation of the Gilbert district. In an area where the majority of households have small children, the school district, known for high test scores and special programs, is a big draw.
TOO MANY KIDS
But a big draw usually means a big crowd and if there’s one word a school doesn’t want to be tagged with it’s "crowded." The expression "crowded classroom" conjures images of the inner city, not what parents want in suburban upper-middle class neighborhood schools.
Chrissy Reid’s sixth-grade classroom is teeming with students. On a Monday in October she tells her students to get cracking. The students’ schedules are outlined, and students know exactly what’s expected and when. There are not a lot of surprises in class because there is no room for any. All the good things are planned.
When a classroom gets too crowded at Spectrum, it’s split into two. A good solution, but not a perfect one.
Splitting classrooms is difficult on the school because it requires hiring a new teacher in the middle of the school year, after many qualified teachers have already accepted employment elsewhere.
Four classrooms have been split at Spectrum this year and the school year isn’t even half over. Reid says the teachers pretty much assume the first week or two after the split won’t be very conducive to learning, especially for the younger grades.
"The kids usually have behavioral problems at first because they are confused. It’s a whole new learning environment and everyone’s trying to figure out their position," she says.
Kids also miss their old teacher, friends and the overall routine of a classroom. It’s a hard adjustment because part of the reason so many kids like to go to school is the normalcy of it, the consistency, educators say.
The students at Spectrum may have an easier time than others, however, because they are familiar with moves and change. Earlier in the school year, the sixthgraders were asked to complete a timeline of their lives. Almost every timeline on display depicts a move. Some more than one.
Another advantage from the children’s perspective: The majority come from similar backgrounds. Most of the Spectrum kids — as is the majority population of 85296 — are white with only a handful of students from other ethnic groups.
They also tend to be affluent. There are no apartment complexes within the school’s boundaries, only single-family homes built within the past year or two, most starting at $200,000.
Some students never experience being the new kid because — often — entire extended families or church groups move together, creating an instant clique at the schools in this ZIP code.
Michael comes from California, where many of Spectrum’s students have lived at one time or another. With his California surfer boy looks, he fits in instantly.
A few hours after the first bell rings, it’s hard to pick him out on the playground as he kicks a ball around with boys who look alike and dress alike. As he makes his way to the cafeteria, boys surround him. "The pizza’s pretty good here," one tells him.
It’s not just the pizza, though. Despite all the moving, reshuffling and crowding — life at Spectrum is good.
More recently, Michael’s father, Tony Kuzman, says Michael is adjusting well to life at Spectrum. "It’s like we never moved," he says.
Part of it is the kids who are described by their fellow classmates as "friendly" and "real nice."
Another reason is Hallock, who goes to great lengths to make the school feel homey. He personally decorated the school in a country theme equipped with big rocking chairs in the hallways.
"He personally goes out there rain or shine and greets those kids on the playground before school," says one mother to another who wears a worried expression as she registers her child for school.
There’s a buzz at Spectrum that something exciting and new is happening here. It’s easy to feel it on a Friday morning, when, after the announcements are read, a class leads the school in a hearty round of the school song.
A third-grade class exuberantly sings. One boy dances, unable to contain his glee.
Their voices rise just a little higher when they get to the part about the "Kids start coming and they don’t stop coming."