Superintendent: Decision on Gilbert Classical Academy could be months away

Gilbert Unified School District’s new interim superintendent will give the school board the next recommendation on what to do with the popular Gilbert Classical Academy.

John “Jack” Keegan made the comment after hearing last week from a board-appointed Gilbert Classical Academy advisory committee charged with recommending whether or not to recommend growing the now 430-student program.

Keegan asked the district board Tuesday to allow the administration to take the ideas presented by the committee and merge them with those presented by a surplus space committee earlier this summer.

Both committees were created after the governing board in January reversed a decision to close Gilbert Junior High School and move the space-restricted Gilbert Classical Academy onto that campus.

The Gilbert Classical Academy advisory committee voted 7-2 to expand the program to allow more students in.

Gilbert Classical Academy was created 2007 to offer a rigorous, classical educational option to students. Admission is through open enrollment - no testing is required - and students must all take honors and Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum, which includes Latin and Spanish, music and community service. It is open to students in grades seven through 12.

The school now takes up a part of the former Greenfield Elementary School site.

According to the committee’s report, Gilbert Classical Academy uses 28 classrooms. Next year, 10 of those will be portable classrooms.

The program costs about $1,400 more per student to operate because of the cost of the required AP curriculum, as well as higher per-student costs for administration.

Committee member Wayne Cottam said some of those costs could go down because no more administration would be needed, even if the program jumped to 800 students.

Cottam also pointed out that no other program or school in the district has been examined using the per-student-cost criteria.

“I don’t believe the district has ever decided on expansion of a program, school or offering based on whether the per student cost met a certain parameter,” he said.

He added that expansion of the program could bring more revenues to the district. Last year, when applications were due, the school saw more applications than ever before.

“A growing number of competitive options exist for parents. It’s hard to track where parents go. But we’re pretty sure a parent wants that GCA experience and when they are not able to get it at GCA, it’s logical to conclude they’re going to go somewhere else. That usually means charter schools. That usually means other schools. … 28 percent of families in Arizona choose charter schools compared to 6 percent nationally so the competition is out there,” Cottam said.

Keegan pointed out that there was never discussion to not have the Gilbert Classical Academy.

“You have a good thing going. I haven’t heard anyone say you want to lose that. We want to get our act together so that we can make good decisions for the whole community,” he said.

Besides discussion of expanding Gilbert Classical Academy, the district’s strategic plan calls for expansion of Neely Traditional Academy. The district also saw larger-than-anticipated interest in its first self-contained gifted classrooms that will open this fall.

And Campo Verde High School – the newest campus for the district – is already using portables to meet the growing interest in the school.

The district’s surplus committee found that there is space in the district for another 570 elementary students, 625 junior high students and 500 high school students, but it's scattered around.

Keegan said he wants to look at all the needs around the district and present a comprehensive plan.

But he warned the board that it more than likely not come back to the board before October.

Board member Julie Smith said that is the time frame required by the state to give notice to a school community if its school is going to be shut down or if the campus’ purpose is going to change.

“It’ll take this year to create the plan. If there is some magical solution we find along the way, we’d come back to you with a recommendation as soon as can be,” Keegan said. “I don’t want people to think that by turning it over to us I’ll come back to you and say by next year you can have it. … I don’t want you to have that as board. It’s unfair to you as a board and more so to the parents and the young men and women at GCA. I cannot give you a timeline at this point. And I definitely will not promise you will have anything by October.”

Photo: Students at Gilbert Classical Academy depart campus following classes last week. The seven-year-old school in the Gilbert Unified School District boasts some of the highest SAT scores in the state. Last fall, the district governing board voted to move students in two years to the Gilbert Junior High School campus. But in January, the new governing board reversed that decision. Gilbert Classical Academy is housed on about half of a campus previously used as an elementary school and families and staff are hoping to expand the program. [Michelle Reese/Tribune