Mesa district looks at closing Powell - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa district looks at closing Powell

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Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2009 10:21 pm | Updated: 1:22 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

The Mesa Unified School District is considering closing Powell Junior High School to open a community center, adding ninth-graders to three high schools and creating an Advanced Studies Academy on the west side of the district.

These ideas were among eight administrative recommendations presented to the school board Thursday night during a meeting that drew about 30 people.

The board and district will now seek input from parents, employees and residents about the recommendations.

"The district is in a position where we have to do something. We have to come up with initiatives that will help not only from a fiscal point of view but will enhance the Mesa school product," governing board president Mike Hughes said as the meeting began.

Superintendent Mike Cowan spoke several times about the fiscal struggles the district is facing in light of the state's budget deficit. He also addressed the district's declining enrollment.

The district has lost more than 6,000 students in the last eight years, and its budget has been chopped by at least $60 million in the last two, with more cuts possible later this school year.

Several of the suggestions by the committee would affect schools in the Dobson Ranch area, which has seen a greater decline of students overall than the rest of the district. Some of the decline can be blamed on the convergence of several school districts in that area, as well as a large number of charter schools, Cowan said.

If all of the recommendations are approved, only one site - Powell Junior High School - would change from a school site to another use.

The recommendations include program changes at Hendrix Junior High School and Guerrero, Frost and Alma elementary schools and the district's McKellips Middle School, an alternative school. The total savings could be between $2.4 million and $2.6 million next school year if all of the recommendations are adopted, the committee reported.

What finally gets adopted may look very different from the recommendations presented, Hughes said.

"This issue, we still have a ways to go," Hughes said near the end of the meeting.

Among the proposals is closing Powell Junior High to open a community center, with social services, community education classes and a school program for fourth- through sixth-grade students with behavior issues.

Powell was suggested not only because of declining enrollment but also because the school is under the federal improvement plan, Cowan said. If academic achievement is not improved - or if the district does not change the programming there - the federal government could force the district next year to close the school, turn it over to a charter school or change the staff, said Suzie DePrez, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Many of the recommendations would add popular programs to the Dobson Ranch area, Assistant Superintendent Janice Ramierez said. Ramierez is chairwoman of the recommendation committee.

Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies is located on the northeast part of the district and has a waiting list. One proposal is to open a similar academy for kindergarten through eighth grade on the campuses of Hendrix Junior High School and Frost Elementary School, which sit next to each other.

Then, an International Baccalaureate program could be offered at the combined campus, with one administrator and one set of office staff. Students would not have to apply to attend the academy, as they do at the existing one, Cowan said.

"All the Frost kids would stay, all the Hendrix kids would stay, if they wanted to," Ramierez said.

Another plan would turn Alma Elementary School into a Franklin back-to-basics campus for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The district's four Franklin schools have 200 students on waiting lists. A new Franklin would draw students through open enrollment, just as existing Franklins do, Cowan said.

People attending the meeting were able to air some concerns, including worries about staffing and programming already in place.

Teachers and staff from Rhodes World Studies Academy, a junior high school, said they are worried about removing ninth-graders from the campus, as well as the impact of new niche programs that might draw "role model students" away.

"The overall concern we have is to make sure what's looked at is the threads that interconnect everything," said Erin Meldrum, a teacher at Rhodes.

Two public hearings were announced. One is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at Westwood High School and another at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at the district curriculum services center, 549 N. Stapley Drive. But the board said it would look at other locations after parents requested a meeting in the Dobson Ranch area.

The board learned late Thursday that because of state statute, the earliest a decision can be made is Jan. 12.

Cowan told the board members and the audience that these recommendations are "phase one" of changes that could be made over the next several years.

Cowan said there is a "likelihood of phase two being even more invasive than this in light of what they're telling us at the state level will be two or more very difficult years" with the budget.

"We will have to do a lot more than just these eight," board president Hughes said. "We do have to move at a pace to respond to the challenges this district is facing."  

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