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A better TUSD costs 35¢ a day

Citizen Staff Writer

A lot of criticism gets flung at Tucson Unified School District – some legitimate, some not.

But many Tucsonans are oblivious to the nationwide rave reviews of two TUSD programs.

Opening Minds through the Arts and University High School have won wide acclaim for helping kids achieve astonishing academic gains.

The successes include lots of “at-risk” students, a euphemism for kids from poor families, of which TUSD has more than most.

Yet while the district is Pima County’s biggest and one of its poorest, it’s also the only local district operating without a voter-approved budget override.

That’s a shameful reflection on Tucsonans in this district.

But if voters change that status Nov. 4, as they certainly should, one result will be expansion of the Opening Minds through the Arts program.

OMA may sound touchy-feely, but it’s not. It hooks kids into mastering the three R’s as well as science, history, social studies and plenty more.

Kids in OMA classrooms do better academically than they did before – and better than their non-OMA peers.

That’s why Harvard University and other East Coast experts come to Tucson to study the program.

And it’s why OMA founder H. Eugene “Gene” Jones was given the prestigious Purpose Prize last year – and immediately plowed his $100,000 award back into the program.

Art works. OMA is proof.

Also proven is University High, ranked 13th-best public high school in the nation last year by U.S. News & World Report.

UHS brings together smart kids who pass a school admissions test and have good grades.

The concentration of focused, intelligent teens produces a synergy that spurs high achievement, notes Becky Eisenberg, a UHS recruiter and mentor program specialist who sent both of her daughters to this school.

University High also has crafted a culture that combines high expectations, demanding courses, topnotch teachers, strong leadership, diversity and a unified mission pursued by everyone in the school.

As of this week, the student body composition of 767 kids is 59.8 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 14.8 percent Asian-Pacific Islander (a category that weirdly includes kids from Pakistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries), 3.6 percent African-American and 0.9 percent Native American. Give or take a half percentage point or so.

All these kids are from Tucson Unified or Altar Valley or Continental school districts, in keeping with a former federal desegregation order.

Kids from other districts aren’t allowed into University yet. But when the school grows, as district and school administrators anticipate, students from other districts could enroll, too.

“The popularity, success and ability to expand University High School are definitely assets to the district,” says Rudy Flores, chief operating officer at TUSD. “So we need to figure out how to support that.

“We will be looking at opportunities for expansion, whether on that campus or another.”

That seems fair, what with Catalina Foothills, Tanque Verde and Vail districts taking plenty of kids from TUSD.

An expansion would accommodate qualified students from Marana, Sunnyside and elsewhere who want to attend UHS.

I know, if my kid qualified, we’d move into TUSD pronto. Who wouldn’t?

University High’s 148 graduates this year raked in $15.8 million in scholarships.

Of 62 local high school seniors named as National Merit Scholarship semifinalists last month, 29 were from UHS. (Second was Catalina Foothills High, with 14.)

And four of the seven local seniors who won National Merit Scholarships in April were in University High.

So go ahead. Criticize TUSD if you must. But remember that this underfunded district has produced the only two public education programs to put the Old Pueblo on the national map.

If that’s not worth 35 cents a day, which is what the override would cost you, I don’t know what is.

Billie Stanton’s eighth-grader is in the wrong district for University High, darn it. Reach Stanton at 573-4664 or bstanton@tucsoncitizen.com.

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