Parents of special ed students who attend the Jordan Center for Early Education are urging the Mesa Public Schools District to reconsider a plan to repurpose it at the end of the school year.
In a letter mailed to parents last week, the district detailed its plan to disperse Jordan’s current students to neighborhood schools across the district in the fall and turning the campus into a place for students with severe behavior problems.
The late notice has left some parents confused about their children’s future and upset about what they feel is shoddy communication from a new district administration.
In response to a week of parental concern, the district sent out Director of Special Education Theresa Baca to the school Thursday for two meetings to alleviate some of the anxiety.
Baca said communication with parents and teachers could have been better, but that hasn’t stopped some people from believing the district is railroading plans through without governing board approval and trying to keep plans as quiet as possible to avoid public resistance.
Jordan teachers weren’t allowed into Thursday’s meetings, but the four or five dozen parents who showed up to the early one vented their feelings for nearly two hours.
“My kid can’t tell me her opinion,” said one mother of a non-verbal daughter. “I’m the only voice she has.”
Baca said the district is trying to comply with the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment appropriate” to meet their “unique needs.”
“We also believe inclusive practices are the best for all children,” Baca said. “And research shows that children learn the best when they are with their peers.”
But many parents weren’t buying it.
“If it was a requirement, why was it so last minute?” one angry mother asked Baca. “If you knew it was going to happen, why was nobody informed? Even the teachers were surprised.”
Baca, who along with new Superintendent Ember Conley began their positions in July, called the unclear communication with parents and teachers a “learning experience.”
“We were not prepared to sit with parents and say this is what happening,” Baca said about the early stages of planning. “In that six months, I have learned a tremendous amount. Am I better prepared to have this conversation now? Yes.”
The district started looking at inclusion options in August right after Baca and Conley took over their positions. Baca said district teams scoured neighborhood elementary schools to make sure there was space to add the special needs preschool options to all campuses.
The decision then came down to closing Jordan on the west side of the district or the Red Mountain Center, a similar school on the east side. Baca said because west side schools had more open space, it made more sense to close that one. The Red Mountain Center will remain open but undergo a merging of the special education and general education populations.
The district first notified Jordan teachers of the change at a hastily-called meeting on Dec. 10. Word slowly leaked out to parents since then, but parents weren’t officially informed until last week.
A large group of parents planned to attend Tuesday night’s regular governing board meeting, though the board lets the public speak only at its second meeting of the month..
District spokesperson Heidi Hurst said because the program doesn’t require a boundary change, the board isn’t required to vote on it. However, in 2013, when the school was changed from the elementary school to the current preschool, the board approved it by a 5-0 vote.
“It’s going to cost money to repurpose the school,” said Catherine Matsumoto, a Jordan SPED teacher. “Why is it not a budgetary issue? I feel like they’re snowing the board.”
This time around, those opposed to the change will be limited to discussing the issue during the public comment portion near the end of Tuesday’s meeting. The board won’t be allowed to take action on the item.
“I know there are teachers who are very upset,” said board member Marcie Hutchinson, who first heard of the change in December. “They seemed not to know this was in the works. Other teachers are excited because they believe the changes are a long-time coming and best for kids.”
The latest plan to repurpose Jordan quietly began last summer, when Conley began the initial phase of the district’s new preschool inclusion model soon after she was hired.
“It has progressed successfully, and we are now in the second phase, which means moving more children to neighborhood schools for preschool,” Hurst said.
Hurst said the school will be repurposed to serve elementary-aged children who need a “more structured environment than we can provide on a typical elementary school campus.”
Plans call for students from preschool through seventh grade to begin attending in August.
Parents who attended Thursday’s early meeting said they felt blindsided and confused about it. They said administrators at the neighborhood schools their children may go to couldn’t give them any information about the changes. Others said they don’t want to have their child included with the general student population.
The plan calls for current Jordan students to take one of four options for next year:
- Attend the neighborhood school closest to their homes;
- Attend the nearest school with preschool, if preschool is not offered at the neighborhood school;
- Attend the nearest school offering the appropriate services for a child;
- Or attend the school the child’s current teacher is assigned to.
Parents will likely have a new assignment for their students within two weeks, Baca said. But she said finalizing all the placements won’t be done until late March.
The Jordan school, named after one-time Maricopa County immigration commissioner T.C. Jordan, has a long history in the East Valley. It first opened around 1899 on a one-acre plot on Mesa farmland near Baseline and Dobson roads, about two miles from the current campus.
In 1905, a two-room brick building was built to replace the original adobe building. Florence Knox Mitten, of the famous Mesa Mitten family, was one of the students at that original school.
That campus was closed right after World War II when four school districts in the East Valley were consolidated to create the Mesa district.
But explosive growth led to the emergence of another Jordan campus in 1979. Jordan Elementary School, serving pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, opened in 1979 with two dozen buildings just south of Guadalupe Road and west of Dobson Road. It’s technically in Chandler but has always been a Mesa district school.
The school was only designed for a little less than 700 students, but it reached a peak enrollment of around 1,100 in 1994.
Enrollment steadily began declining in the late 1990s as newer schools opened, but Jordan still thrived for another decade.
By 2008, Jordan’s enrollment of 486 students was down more than 200 from the previous year, right at a time when the district was facing $20 million in budget cuts because of enrollment drops across the board.
That led administrators to make their first attempt to close the elementary school came in early 2008, which would have made it the first Mesa school to ever close at the time. But parents were able to successfully convince the school board to change its plans.
By 2013, enrollment was down to 370 regular education and special education students, as well as 150 preschool students. Then-Superintendent Mike Cowan told the board at the time that Jordan was the least-enrolled school in the district for eight straight years.
Students were reassigned to other schools near to them, and it was repurposed as the Jordan Center for Early Education in time for the 2013-14 school year.
The problem is the reconfigured school still segregates the special needs students from the regular students, which violates the inclusiveness law. The Arizona Department of Education sent the district a letter in late 2016 to order both Jordan and Red Mountain campuses in compliance with the law.