The Gilbert Unified School District governing board plans to create a committee structure next week to look at how to expand the popular Gilbert Classical Academy after plans to move it to Gilbert Junior High School’s campus were dropped.
The board voted Jan. 22 to rescind a previous board decision would have resulted in Gilbert Junior High School closing after the 2014-15 school year and the academy moving to that campus.
It left academy families “sad” and “disappointed,” some said, as they wait to see what the future will hold.
“We’ll keep on keeping on under our current constraints. We’ll continue to turn around away 250 kids a year. We’ll continue to have no athletic fields, no gym, no auditorium,” parent Brian Steines told the Tribune. “We’ll keep doing the best we can.”
Expanding the Gilbert Classical Academy was part of the district’s strategic plan, created last year. The school opened in 2007, designed to offer a college prep program in the Gilbert district. Students all take honors or advanced placement classes. No lower level options are available. And to graduate, students must have 28 high school credits compared to the district requirement of 22 credits at its other high schools.
Since the first students arrived — about 200 in grades seven through nine — the campus has grown to offer classes in grades seven through 12.
It is housed on about half of the buildings on a former elementary school campus. There are currently two portable buildings — which make four classrooms — also in use and principal Jodie Dean said there are now plans to add another portable building next year.
Because of the small school size, and the school model, only a small number of students are admitted each year. There were only 85 spots open for seventh graders in the fall, she said.
But there are more than 280 students on the waiting list to get into grades seven, eight or nine. And that list is the largest it’s been in the school’s short history, Dean said.
“We had a record number of applications come in,” before the November lottery was held, Dean said.
Steines worries that those families on waiting lists will seek their education elsewhere, especially with the growing number of charter schools in the East Valley.
“If GCA did not exist, I would not send my kid to any of the other public high schools or junior highs. I would send my kids to Gilbert Christian or Tempe Prep, one of the Great Hearts schools,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and neighbors who send their kids out of Gilbert boundaries.”
That’s because Gilbert Classical Academy offers something other district schools do not, he said.
“My particular 17-year-old is just like every other 17-year-old boy out there. He’s quasi half-lazy, does the minimum required to get by. What I have seen at school is them to push him in the right way to get him to excel,” Steines said, noting his son’s performance on college entrance exams and plans to attend school out of state on scholarships. “It’s given my students the opportunity to excel academically. Where had they gone to a traditional school, they would have been just in the flow. But in the flow, or normal, standard, at GCA is academic excellence.”
Students at the academy recently received the some of the top SAT scores in the state, Dean pointed out. Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Education released a list of the top 50 high schools in the state by SAT scores. Fifth, behind three charter schools and a Tucson magnet school that requires an entrance exam, is Gilbert Classical Academy.
GCA mom Cathy Clark echoes Steines beliefs in the school.
“My hope is they’ll find a campus to grow and expand,” she said. “My daughter will be gone, but I’d like to see it offered to more in the Gilbert community. … I think you have to look at the school and its success.”
Much has been said about the school’s attrition rate, Dean said, which shows a high number of students enrolling in the program, but leaving before graduation. But she pointed out that the school was built with a different model than other junior high and high school campuses.
While students can enroll anytime at Gilbert High School, for instance, Dean said that’s not the case at Gilbert Classical Academy. The school only accepts new seventh, eighth and ninth graders and only during the first week of classes.
So if an academy student drops out or fails out in December, that spot will not be filled until the following school year.
Any student can attend the academy. There’s no entrance exam or academic requirement, Dean said. But some students get in and realize the rigorous curriculum is not for them, so they go back to their home schools, she said.
Clark, whose family has been at the school since it opened, said the beginning years were “experimental,” as the district was putting together something new. But she said people are now hearing about it and desiring that type of education, despite the lack of facilities.
“It’s a really small campus. The PE facilities are almost nonexistent. There are no showers. No where to run,” she said.
And as that waiting list grows, the GCA families hope something can be done to make room for additional students soon.
“There’s a real need to expand it,” Clark said. “It’s not for everyone. You have to be really driven to do it. But that’s the kind of kids we’re trying to attract. … I see all the other districts actively pursuing schools like this because there is a need for it.”
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