Two years ago, the Tempe Elementary School District governing board voted to close three schools.
While two of the campuses — Bustoz and Meyer elementary schools — have found new life as either rented space or a teacher development center, the third — McKemy Middle School — has sat vacant.
Superintendent Chris Busch took over the role of leading the district after the closures were decided. During the next two years, she spent time talking to parents, community members and Tempe leaders.
One request was loud and clear: Can you find a way to reopen McKemy Middle School?
Busch thinks the district has a solid plan to make that happen: Open a program where students transition smoothly from the elementary school district into Tempe High School’s International Baccalaureate program in the Tempe Union High School District.
The IB program — based in schools around the world that follow similar curriculum and structure — is a highly academic program that aims to give children a perspective of their place as a global citizen.
But before looking at what to do with McKemy, Busch said, the district needed to take a few steps to help recover from a loss of state funding and student enrollment.
“What we’ve been trying to do in the last year is strengthen the programs we have, improve student achievement and add things to get back the kids we lost quickly so we could build our enrollment and move forward to do the things we want to do,” Busch said.
Enrollment has now stabilized somewhat. Instead of losing hundreds of kids each year, the student count this year is only about 50 less than last year. The district also opened a self-contained gifted academy that’s drawn attention from parents and students across the East Valley.
The governing board put a capital outlay override on the November ballot to maintain the additional $5 million the district now gets from its taxpayers — money used to pay for items like computers, technology and textbooks.
That sets the stage, Busch said, to bring in another new program. The proposal would bring in about 100 to 120 sixth-graders into the newest part of McKemy, built in 1995. Each of the next three years, an additional grade would be added, first seventh and then eighth. At the most, the program would have 400 students, Busch said.
They would be educated under the “middle years” International Baccalaureate program. It would not be a “comprehensive” middle school, she noted.
The plan presented to the governing board last week was approved 5-0, contingent on the passage of the November override.
If it moves forward, parents would have the choice of sending their child to a comprehensive middle school (Gililland, Connolly or Fees), a K-8 traditional school (Ward) or a K-8 regular school (Laird), as well as the ASPIRE gifted academy (a school-within-a-school for students gifted in two or more areas) and then the IB program at McKemy.
“Everyone said this is what the community really wants. Everyone is looking for more rigor. They want more rigorous curriculum. We know we’ve lost kids to Tempe Prep (Academy) and other rigorous schools. Our hope is by giving parents what they are requesting, which is more choice for their children, that we will keep the kids we have and get back the kids we’ve lost,” Busch said.
School districts have worked over the years to revive schools that have been closed or moved because of aging communities or declining enrollment.
Some ideas have worked. Some have not.
Nearly a decade ago, the Gilbert Unified School District opened a program with ties to the Air Force at the former Greenfield Elementary School site.
It didn’t last long.
Following that, the district opened Gilbert Classical Academy — a rigorous academic program with no application requirements.
It has flourished so much that district leaders proposed moving it to Gilbert Junior High School (the final decision on that may not come until early next year).
Mesa Unified School District took two schools and merged them into the Summit Academy three years ago. Like the Tempe proposal, Summit follows the International Baccalaureate curriculum. Just this year, three several Franklin — back-to-basics programs — were merged onto the former Brimhall Junior High School site in Mesa. The Mesa governing board made that move when it closed Brimhall as a neighborhood school.
Chandler Unified School District turned Erie Elementary School into Arizona College Prep-Erie Campus this year, another sign that parents are seeking higher educational standards for their children. It is also converting Knox Elementary School into the Knox Gifted Academy, a self-contained program where all the students in each class test into the “gifted” spectrum.
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