Nontraditional Gilbert public school high performing but expensive - East Valley Tribune: News

Nontraditional Gilbert public school high performing but expensive

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Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2009 6:38 pm | Updated: 2:39 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Gilbert Classical Academy seventh-graders researched the Civil War in their social studies class Wednesday using their school-issued laptops.

Ninth-graders in Bret Murphy's Spanish class answered questions from the flat-screen television in a corner of the room, while Murphy used an AirLiner device, or a wireless slate, and a stylus to write answers on the TV screen and post questions.

The technology available in each of the academy's 18 classrooms is one of the many extraordinary features of the college-prep combined junior high and high school in the Gilbert Unified School District.

With its 310 students and 18 teachers, the smallness of the school at Guadalupe and Greenfield roads and the available technology are what draw many students there. But those features are also part of the reason why costs per pupil are much higher at the academy than the district's regular comprehensive high schools.

On Tuesday, the Gilbert school board heard a cost analysis per pupil comparing the Gilbert Classical Academy with Gilbert High School, the closest high school to the academy and the oldest in the district. Using data from the 2008-09 school year, the analysis showed that the cost per pupil at Gilbert High is $4,781, compared with $6,266 per pupil at Gilbert Classical Academy.

District officials expect the costs to be more similar as Gilbert Classical reaches full enrollment.

Board member Helen Hollands asked for a cost analysis last year because with a new program, she said she wanted to have a "clear understanding" of what the costs were to educate a student in that environment.

"I want it to be a fiscally responsible program that's sustainable over time and within the realms of where we're spending our money at other schools," Hollands said. "I expected that there would be cost differences for two reasons. One, because it's a smaller school, and two, it's not a program that's fully established."

Hollands asked for the same analysis to be completed this school year and said if the costs become closer the district could open new classical academies in the future, if the demand is there. If the costs remain high, the district needs to look at optimizing costs, she said.

"We do want to meet the needs of our community members," Hollands said. "It's a very unique environment ... When we do a school like this, it's important to look at all aspects of the data."

Gilbert Classical Academy opened three years ago with seventh- to ninth-grade students. The school has added a grade each year, and this year has 38 11th-graders. The first seniors will graduate from the school in 2011.

Each grade is capped at 80 students, and students are only accepted up to the ninth grade because of the rigorous course work. There is no tuition, no entrance exam and no boundaries for the school, but preference is given to district employees' children and siblings of students.

The waiting list has more than 200 students, and the public lottery will be Nov. 13 for the next school year.

The academy is the only school in the Gilbert district to require uniforms.

Seventh- to ninth-graders learn Latin, which helps with vocabulary and spelling. Ninth-graders begin taking two years of Spanish.

All classes are taught at the honors level, and each student has between two to three hours of homework a night.

Music is required for seventh- to 10th-graders, with either band, choir or orchestra available.

"We are the only one-to-one computing, classical-style school in the country," said Principal Brian Rosta, who came to the district from running International Baccalaureate programs for Chicago public schools.

High school students spend almost 50 minutes longer in class than other Gilbert high schools.

Students learn through Socratic instruction, in which teachers encourage critical thinking and make subjects relevant to students, Rosta said.

If a student fails a class, they're dismissed from the school, he said.

"Our focus is to send students to a four-year university with a scholarship," Rosta said. "The main focus is to be successful in all subjects."

Seniors need 75 hours of community service to graduate, and seniors also have to write an 8,000-word thesis and defend it in front of a panel of teachers.

Students received perfect scores on last year's AIMS tests, and students have a 70-percent success rate passing Advanced Placement exams. The national average for passing AP exams is 21 percent, Rosta said. The school offers 12 AP courses.

Obviously, the school is not for everybody. Rosta meets with each family that wants to enter the school to make sure they know what they're getting into.

Eleventh-grader Megan Shaw came to the school from South Valley Junior High School three years ago because she wanted good teachers and laptops.

"It's really close-knit," said Shaw, 16, treasurer of the National Honor Society. "Teachers work with students. You don't feel pressured or judged by other people."

Thirty-five percent of students come from outside of the Gilbert district's boundaries, including Rebecca Hamlin's freshman son, who attended J.O. Combs Middle School in San Tan Valley last year in the J.O. Combs Unified School District.

Hamlin wanted her son to attend Gilbert Classical Academy because he's more mature than other kids his age.

"He likes the discipline and the structure," said Hamlin, who hopes her two younger children can go to the school as well. "He was never challenged before. Now he's relaxed and doesn't have as much peer pressure. He feels like everyone is here to learn, instead of socializing. We just love it."

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