Students who enrolled in an aviation-focused Gilbert high school never received what school officials promised three years ago. Flight simulators. Advanced technology.
Military equipment that would set their school, the Technology and Leadership Academy, apart from all other high schools in the nation through a special partnership with the United States Air Force.
Now, as enrollment dwindles and the Gilbert Unified School District plans to close the school, the district and the Air Force both deny responsibility for its failure.
Caught in the middle are students and parents disappointed the academy is closing.
Sophomore Nathan Hall said it was his ambition to be an aerospace engineer that attracted him to the school.
“I found out that it was not necessarily true what I heard about (the school). But I had also found out that it was okay,” he said. “One of the main points of the school isn’t the technology, even though that’s in the name . . . a lot of it is in the environment.”
When the school opened in 2003, school officials touted its mandatory JROTC program, curriculum geared toward science and technology, and plans to develop joint aeronautical programs with colleges and airports.
Families camped overnight outside the district office to make sure they would be first to enroll. Students and parents hoped the academy would kick-start military and technical careers.
But the technology never came. The curriculum mirrors that of other Gilbert high schools. The aviation partnerships never formed.
“This ended up being just another small high school with another ROTC unit attached to it,” said Superintendent Brad Barrett.
The school’s headmaster, Lt. Col. Lowell “Ed” Fox, said high expectations left when the school’s Air Force JROTC representative was transferred in spring 2003.
“When (he) left, all the . . . opportunities to pursue things beyond the normal ROTC pack left with him,” Fox said. “I think his transfer caused a loss of momentum with (Air Force) headquarters.”
Barrett blames the Air Force: “They promised it to us and they reneged. We saw this thing crumbling before our fingertips.”
Phil Berube, a spokesman for the Air Force JROTC program, said nothing was promised above and beyond what every other high school in the country receives for its JROTC program.
“We can’t speak on promises that may or may not have been made,” Berube stated in an e-mail.
He said key Air Force personnel involved in the initial conversations have retired and could not be reached for comment.
The school, which was expected to eventually enroll 300 students, opened with 104 students in the ninth and 10th grades. Now, 115 students are enrolled in ninth through 12th grades.
Though enrollment didn’t take off, the school’s academic performance has been strong. In 2004, the Arizona Department of Education rated the school “excelling,” based on student scores on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
Several students said they were attracted to the school because of its aviation focus, but decided to stay even after they learned that was not the case because of the school’s smaller student body, “heightened discipline,” and high test scores.
Pat Coyle, whose son is a sophomore, said he was attracted to the school for its ROTC program.
“In spite of the fact that the original curriculum didn’t come about, they have a plan that works,” Coyle said. “And that’s why it has been such a good school for our son.”
The district has spent almost $54,000 marketing the academy over the past 2 1 /2 years and has held numerous tours for hundreds of families, though the majority have not enrolled.
District spokeswoman Dianne Bowers said many interested students did not meet the school’s requirements of a 2.0 GPA and no disciplinary referrals.
The district expects to announce in March a new program to replace the academy starting in August 2007.
District officials will not reveal details of that program. They do say the school will be able to accommodate both the academy’s current students who can graduate under that program, and the new program’s students simultaneously.
“If we can’t attract enough kids . . . then we picked the wrong concept again and maybe that’s an indicator that no one wants to do magnet schools in Gilbert,” Barrett said. “We were so assured of what the Air Force was going to give us. That’s why we are going slow with this (new program and) just do this right. I think once we unveil the new program everything will fit into perspective.”