Mesa district might get new charter school - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Mesa district might get new charter school

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Posted: Sunday, August 9, 2009 8:59 pm | Updated: 3:11 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Mesa may have a new charter school as early as August 2010, one supported by the Mesa Unified School District.

Mesa may have a new charter school as early as August 2010, one supported by the Mesa Unified School District.

The application was submitted late last month - just in time for the Aug. 3 deadline - to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The organization seeking the charter is the Mesa School Community Alliance, a nonprofit organization with only one board member right now - Paul Wright, the Mesa district's director of development.

Mesa Superintendent Mike Cowan announced late last month that the district is going to explore a number of ways to address declining enrollment in the largest district in the state. Mesa expects to have about 67,700 students when school starts Wednesday, about 2,000 fewer than last year.

Wright joined the district in 2006. The first school he helped get off the ground was the Mesa School for Advanced Studies, which opened in August 2007. Wright also lent assistance to get Crossroads High School started, a school for students who need a smaller environment.

That first project, Wright said, was created as an answer to community response, "much in the vein of what charter schools do, what the public is seeking, and to capitalize on that," he said.

Wright spent close to a decade as an executive with a charter school company, The Leona Group, which runs several charters schools in Arizona.

Mesa Unified, Wright said, is looking at the efforts of other large school districts around the country - Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to name a few - that have found success in creating new schools that cater to what parents are seeking today.

"Mesa is going through a lot of changes fast. We're not alone," he said. "We're looking at what others have done successfully in times of declining enrollment and leadership changes."

In particular, Wright points to Chicago's Renaissance 2010 initiative to create or bring in niche, high-quality campuses to serve the 407,000-student district. Some schools proposed for Chicago in the next few years include college-prep campuses, single-sex schools, a campus that trains students in technology careers and one that focuses on social justice.

But Arizona's educational system is far different than other states with charter schools, Wright said.

In Arizona, though districts can - and do - sponsor charter schools, the vast majority of them have no connection with school districts, nor do they have the same requirements. Charter schools, like district schools, receiving funding from the state.

In Chicago, the district can play a role in how the new schools operate. But in Mesa, a nonprofit organization - the Mesa School Community Alliance - would oversee the school, Wright said. If the charter is approved and the school moves forward, a board would be set up for the alliance. It would have its own funding from the state, its own employees and its own educational plan. The alliance would rent campus space from the district, Wright said, but the campuses would remain the property of Mesa Unified School District.

By taking this route rather than creating a new school in the traditional confines of a school district, Wright said there is the ability to mix things up with grade configurations, focus and staffing.

The grant application from the alliance covers kindergarten through 12th grade, with the possibility of 1,500 students at the different campuses, Wright said.

"If the district were to do it themselves, it would almost be in name only," Wright said. "This is fundamental change."

The application was written openly so that the nonprofit's board can explore options if it is approved, which could happen as early as January.

If the state board gives the go-ahead, the school has to open within two years.

Several sites that are already in the district's inventory are identified as possibilities for a charter school, but nothing is final, Wright said. The sites include Superstition High School, 1022 E. Southern Ave.; Riverview High School, 1731 N. Country Club Drive; and McKellips Middle School, 323 E. McKellips Drive.

Those sites currently house some of the district's alternative schools for students who have academic, attendance or behavior challenges.

The district submitted an application once before for a charter school, but backed off that idea.

During a discussion with district leaders and governing board members, Cowan said the district could look very different in the next few years. Schools could be closed, grade levels at schools may be changed and the focus schools may be realigned.

During the presentation, Cowan said it may be possible to close a campus and reopen it with a different focus. Cowan said a charter school is one of several options to look at.

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