MARY BUSTAMANTE and
Anger and frustration will be at the forefront of meetings this week as parents and Tucson Unified School District officials gather at four schools that administrators propose to close next year.
The meetings, which start Monday, bring closer to reality a highly emotional issue based on financial necessity. But it is the students at Corbett, Ochoa, Rogers and Wrightstown elementaries who may pay the most.
Rogers has a showcase autism program, Corbett has a nationally acclaimed library-media center and Ochoa and Wrightstown have integral neighborhood ties.
In reaction to the district’s proposals, a group of residents has created the Tucson Unified School Supporters Coalition.
“We may be able to create a foundation like the one at the University of Arizona to raise money for TUSD and save schools and programs,” said organizer Ann-Eve Pedersen.
TUSD said the proposed closures would not only save up to $4 million a year but also help the state’s second largest – and by far the most spread out – school district find a way to serve the burgeoning student population on the far West Side.
Home prices on the East Side have forced young couples with children to seek housing across town on the far West Side, said TUSD Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer.
Vesey Elementary, for example, has 784 students and Miller Elementary has 712. Both schools are west of Interstate 19.
But Wrightstown, on the far East Side, serves only about 155 students, Pfeuffer said.
“We need to look at our cost effectiveness and efficiency,” Pfeuffer said of the disparity in enrollments.
Meanwhile, TUSD has lost more than 4,100 students in the past 10 years – some to charter and private schools and others to neighboring districts.
“Despite years of declining enrollment, the number of schools and school staffing levels have remained constant or have increased,” Pfeuffer said, adding that in some small or underpopulated schools the district spends more than $5,100 per student.
At larger schools, TUSD may spend less than $2,700 per student, which raises equity issues, he said. Each school needs a minimum of one principal, one counselor or librarian plus other staffing.
Financial issues notwithstanding, children will be asked to bear the heavier burden of a transition TUSD, like many urban districts around the nation, will be going through for years to come.
Status of special programs
There is concern autistic and other special-needs students at Rogers Elementary, will not fare well in a transition.
At Rogers, there is an integration and acceptance of autistic children “from the custodian staff all the way up to the principal,” and that is what Blanca Payne is afraid her first-grader, Jeffrey, who is autistic, will not get at another school.
“We work hard as a family to make him feel successful and being mainstreamed and Rogers is part of the reason he feels successful,” she said.
“His teacher’s philosophy is the same as ours at home: that they are capable individuals,” she said. “At Rogers, he’s just a child. At another school, the chances that he will have the same opportunities he has now are slim.”
Payne said she doesn’t know of any school “that puts that much effort into it.” And she has looked around.
The Paynes don’t live in Rogers’ boundaries – they live much farther east – but were allowed to send Jeffrey there after his parents requested it because of his autism.
“I think they are putting his education at risk, changing his schools. It’s not about doing what they can get by with for these kids at Rogers,” she said. “It’s about doing what’s right for them. That’s what TUSD’s philosophy is, and that’s why it’s so surprising that they are closing that school.”
Moving autistic students to another school also is a concern for teacher Patti Anderson, who has students with not only autism but also with learning disabilities, and others who are emotionally disturbed.
“My students, a lot of them are into the routine, they trust me. I teach my students that I am their advocate in the classroom. I can help them. We form a bond. I go to their regular teachers and can say, ‘So and so isn’t understanding this. Can you re-explain?’ I am their caseworker.”
Receiving school concerns
It isn’t just parents and teachers at sending schools, those proposed for closure, who are concerned about their children.
Michelle Thomas is the mother of two children at Safford Elementary – the receiving school for Ochoa’s nearly 250 students – and one at Safford Engineering/Technology Magnet Middle School. She also is a member of the parent-teacher organization and Safford site council.
The Thomases don’t live within Safford boundaries, but choose to send their children there because their neighborhood school, Grijalva Elementary in Midvale Park, is above capacity, she said.
“Grijalva was so overcrowded that kids couldn’t even bring their backpacks inside their portable (classroom),” she said. “There were 35 students in there and they had to move the cubbies outside to make more space.”
After some boundary changes, her children would have been bused to Lynn/Urquides, a Southwest Side school. With an enrollment of 943, it is the largest elementary school in TUSD.
“We hear they plan on putting the third- and fourth-graders (from Lynn/Urquides) on the bottom floor of Safford Middle School,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter, who is in the third grade and going into fourth next year, to be mingling with middle school kids. And using the lower floor of the middle school also means taking away space for some middle school programs.”
She’s looking for charter schools for her children.
At Rogers, parent Chris Wallenmeyer also is considering charters, although he would prefer that Rogers stay open.
Is it the right time?
Wallenmeyer blames Pfeuffer for the proposed closures and thinks the school board is split on what to do, so he believes there is hope.
“The district should wait until a new superintendent is hired and find out if that person is interested in closing schools. Maybe a new superintendent might be able to solve these issues (without closures of schools such as Rogers),” he said.
TUSD is in the process of selecting a new superintendent to take over in July. The board is expected to make a decision later this month.
There could be new faces on the governing board next school year, as well, Wallenmeyer said because positions are open in November’s election.
In some cases, the closures might affect entire families.
Kim Grimes, the teacher-librarian at Corbett, could lose her job if the school is closed.
Her twin sons, who attend the school’sGifted And Talented Education, or GATE, program may lose their school.
“People are leaving in droves to Tanque Verde and Catalina Foothills” school districts, she said. “Catalina Foothills sent my whole neighborhood an advertisement and Tanque Verde is advertising big time, too. So are the charter schools.”
She said she didn’t think the receiving schools have the same caliber of library or Opening Minds through the Arts program that Corbett does.
Corbett was the first TUSD school to get OMA, a nationally acclaimed fine arts program that has been linked to improved academic performance and behavior.
“Plus, with a huge school like Corbett, with about 600 students, we will bus about 500 neighborhood kids,” she said.
Although Corbett has a large student population, it is still under-enrolled by 100 students.
Another 100 students at the school’s GATE program may move as a a block to Kellond Elementary School.
“It costs the district $1,493 per student per year, to bus them, and I don’t think they get reimbursed for everything or the Transportation Department would not be anticipating being over budget $4 million (by the end of June),” she said.
Helen LePage, Erickson Elementary principal, would like to allay some of those fears, but knows it’s an emotional issue.
Erickson itself was on a possible closure list at the start of the school year, so there is relief among parents that the school became a potential “receiving” school for some of Corbett students, not a “sending” one.
“It’s naturally a less emotional issue to have more students at our school than to have to move your children to another school,” she said.
That Erickson may receive students “was a relief for me, too, but at the same time, since I am close with my colleagues, I’m really sympathetic with them and the challenges they face,” LePage said.
She said she would be at the meetings on school closures this week “in the back taking notes to help make it a smooth transition, if it happens.”
She hopes to meet with Corbett parents so they know “we will receive those students with open arms and that our teachers are prepared to do anything to make them feel at home and to continue to focus on student achievement.”
IF YOU GO
Tucson Unified School District will hold informational meetings and public hearings, beginning Monday at the four elementary schools recommended for closure next year.
The district board will conduct public hearings about two weeks later, also at the individual schools.
In addition, there will be a general public hearing at Rincon/University High School.
The meetings and public hearings:
• Ochoa Elementary, 101 W. 25th St.
Information meeting: 6-8 p.m. Monday
Public hearing: 6-8 p.m. March 18
• Corbett Elementary, 5949 E. 29th St.
Information meeting: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Public hearing: 5-7 p.m. March 17
• Rogers Elementary, 6000 E. 14th St.
Information meeting: 6-8 p.m. Thursday
Public hearing: 7:30-9:30 p.m. March 17
• Wrightstown Elementary, 8950 E. Wrightstown Road
Information meeting: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday
Public hearing: 6-8 p.m. March 19
• Rincon/University High School auditorium, 421 North Arcadia Blvd.,
General public hearing: 6-8 p.m. March 14
Sending and Receiving Schools
Sending Receiving Distance*
Corbett(P) Erickson (P) 2 miles
Kellond (PP) 2 miles
Reynolds (P) 3 miles
Ochoa (U**) Safford (PP) 1 mile
Rogers (H) Sewell (E) 1 mile
Wheeler (H) 2 miles
Wrightstown (H) Bloom (E) 1 mile
Henry (H) 1 mile
NOTE: The letters in parenthesis explain the state assessment of the schools and stand for (E) Excelling; (H) Highly Performing; (PP) Performing Plus; (P) Performing; (U) Underperforming as of 2007.
* Distance of school under closure to receiving schools. Elementary school students living less than 1.2 miles from their school are not bused.
** The school is Underperforming with the exclusion of the GATE program, which if calculated with the general student population might bring the school up to Performing status, thus masking the problem.
Source: TUSD, Arizona Department of Education
TUSD CLOSURES Timeline
• Feb. 6: Community meeting on school closures
• Feb. 12: Board meeting
• Feb. 13: Written notice to parents
• Mar. 3-6: Community meetings at schools
• Mar. 11: Board meeting
• Mar. 14-17: Public hearings on school closures
• Mar. 20: Open enrollment deadline for affected schools
• April 8: Board meeting
• April 15: Board meeting on school closure recommendations
Criteria for school closures
• Academic performance
• Geography – effort to minimize the distance to receiving schools
• Schools under court order for desegregation were not considered
• Very small size or very low enrollment compared with capacity