Arizona’s largest school district is planning a major expansion of high school programs to give students the option of attending smaller, more specialized campuses.
Some will be smaller schools housed in the Mesa Unified School District’s large comprehensive high schools. Others will be separate alternative or magnet schools.
District Superintendent Debra Duvall this week estimated that sometime in the future 15 percent of all Mesa high school students will attend small "schools within schools."
The term has become popular nationally as educators create smaller learning environments and career-specific training in high school or even as early as middle or elementary school.
"I think anything we can do that would expand opportunities for young people in our community, we should be looking at," Duvall said.
When school begins Aug. 15, Mesa High School will offer a biotechnology academy — the first of what will eventually be one at every high school. Students will study the up-andcoming industry that is expected to bring jobs in DNA research as students graduate.
By next spring, the district plans to open a tourism and hospitality academy — to serve from 30 to 100 students — that will be housed in the Early Education Center, 122 N. Country Club Drive. The center already includes its own small high school that opened last year for at-risk students.
Plans are also under way to create a pre-engineering program at one to three high schools, expanding eventually to every Mesa high school. Similar to majoring in a subject in college, students will learn the same state academic standards and have the same English, science and math requirements as the rest of the school, but with a focus on drafting, robotics or mechanical engineering.
Three weeks ago, Mesa gave the school district the former Mesa Arts Center at 201 N. Center Street, which the district is now renovating with plans to create a magnet school — likely a high school for technology or fine arts, among options being debated.
In August, Westwood High School will offer the international baccalaureate program that focuses on state standards expanded to include an international education. The program will start with 100 students, eventually growing to about 300. The district also is considering a pre-IB program in middle school.
Duvall said the district’s plans do not mean educators don’t support the larger school atmosphere — most Mesa high schools have enrollments topping 2,000 — for most students who may want to try a variety of courses.
"I think simply to say that every school should be a small school is not doing justice to the opportunities that are available in a comprehensive high school," she said.
Tony Maldonado, director of career and technical education, said he’s got a plan for how every high school could be divided eventually into 10 different minischools — if the governing board decides to go in that direction.
"What I’m trying to do is move us in a total new direction," he said. "Building a work force that’s going to compete globally. We’re just going to metamorphose and grow into multiple areas."
Governing board member Cindi Hobbs said the board won’t take away opportunities created by larger comprehensive schools.
But, she said, the board has routinely dealt with discipline issues that could have been easily resolved by providing students with a smaller, more personal environment.
"Right now our high schools are basically 2,500 kids," she said. "It does not reach all of our children. We realized we don’t have a place for these kids where they feel safe and secure."
Carol Peck, director of the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona, authored the "Lead with Five" report this year, recommending the state create smaller schools to ensure students get more individual attention.
The former superintendent of the west Valley Alhambra Elementary School District, Peck created small "schools within schools" almost two decades ago.
"In the state of Arizona, I would like to see more choices for parents," she said. "So they could pick the very large high school if they so choose. Or, they could pick a smaller environment for their child."
Other states are also latching onto the idea. In Seattle, one large high school is broken into four smaller schools. The Anchorage School District has offered small "schools within schools" since the 1970s, said spokesman Roger Fiedler.
"Some students find they have more success in an alternative method of instruction that matches up better with how they work as a family," he said.
In the Scottsdale Unified School District, administrators and board members have shown increased interest in creating similar programs. The district’s Desert Mountain High School already offers an international baccalaureate program.
The Mesa district wants the community’s help as it creates smaller high school programs. Duvall urged anyone in the public with experience or knowledge that could help in planning future programs to contact the district for volunteer or contract work. The Mesa district can be reached at (480) 472-0000.