For the first time in two decades, freshmen will roam the halls of Mesa's Dobson High School when classes start in August.
Dobson principal Matt Gehrman is inviting area charter school students leaving the eighth grade to consider Dobson as a four-year high school option, with the Ninth Grade Bridge Program starting in the fall for 50 kids.
The Class of 1988 was the last class to attend Dobson for four years. The area junior highs were so big at the time that freshmen stayed on Dobson campus even though Mesa's other high schools only had 10th-graders through 12th-graders.
Unlike surrounding school districts, Mesa's junior highs include seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
With many charter schools ending education at eighth grade, that leaves students two options: seek out a four-year high school or enroll in a Mesa junior high for one year before transferring again to a Mesa district high school.
"I'm kind of a service to the charter families," Gehrman said of the program he's touting. "For these K-8 schools, since they don't have a natural transition somewhere else, anyone who comes in for a presentation will hear another option. ... It certainly benefits me if they come."
It's an idea long needed, said Martha Wallace, director and principal at D.W. Higgins Institute, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus in Tempe.
"I was very glad to hear we were going to get out of the 20th century and into the 21st century and get Mesa schools with freshmen," Wallace said.
Wallace attended Mesa schools, and her father, D.W. Higgins, taught in them for decades, she said.
So far, parents hearing Gehrman's presentation at D.W. Higgins Institute have been receptive to the idea, Wallace said.
"I know there are several (students) who are doing that," she said. "They really liked the presentation and because I said, 'I really think Dobson's a great school.' My daughter went there and got a great education there. I think Dobson does a really good job. I think what he's trying to do is open the playing field here so they can really have open enrollment."
The ninth-grade students will take their core classes together, such as English, science and social studies. But because they'll be on the Dobson campus, they can also enroll in the school's bands, take an art class or participate in any other activities.
"The benefits we can provide kids in four years is great," Gehrman said. "I've always wished we could have freshmen on campus."
In the 10 years Wallace has run her school, she said she's only known of one student to make that double transition from her school to a Mesa junior high to a Mesa high school.
Gehrman said he plans to assign a counselor to the 50 freshmen he hopes to have in the fall. The students will also take part in a freshmen-only orientation. They'll take classes in available classrooms around the campus, not just in one location.
Since the program is limited to 50 kids, the first students to be accepted will be those charter school students who don't have a ninth grade on their current campuses, Gehrman said. And while he has received interest from students currently enrolled in Dobson's feeder schools - Rhodes, Hendrix and Powell junior highs - the program is not intended for them, because ninth grade is available on those campuses.
Dobson has the largest open enrollment population in the Mesa Unified School District, with more than 350 kids choosing to come there.
The campus, near Dobson and Guadalupe roads, is near the Chandler and Tempe borders.
"I think people are used to exercising that choice for Dobson anyway," he said.