TUSD's Stegeman on why he supports University High move - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

TUSD's Stegeman on why he supports University High move

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Photo from stegeman4tusd.com Photo from stegeman4tusd.com

TUSD board member Mark Stegeman has released a statement explaining why he supports swapping University High students and Catalina High students.

The shared Rincon-UHS campus is currently experiencing at 113 percent capacity, according to the UHS presentation documents.

Catalina High is under-enrolled. The facility is meant to accommodate about 1,500 students but only houses approximately 730 students.

Dear supporters and correspondents,

Last week the TUSD Board took a major step forward. Following a preliminary report (with executive summary) on options for separating Rincon and University High Schools, which the Board had requested in May, the Board on Tuesday directed a followup study of one option: merging Catalina and Rincon high schools at the current Rincon/UHS site, while moving UHS to the Catalina site. The vote was 3-2 (Foster and Grijalva dissenting). I strongly support this path, based on the information currently available to the Board. 

No decision has been made, of course. This merely initiates a process that will include the communities of all three schools, a desegregation impact analysis, conversations with the desegregation plaintiffs and the special master, initiation of a boundary adjustment process that could affect the other three high schools that share boundaries with CHS (Sabino, Palo Verde, and Tucson High), input from other stakeholders, at least one public hearing, etc. 

This is an important step partly because the new Board has been mostly timid about going beyond incremental change. This realignment of high schools would be a big change. TUSD needs many big changes if it is to succeed against the next wave of charter school growth.

Historical context 

TUSD has executed two major rounds of school closures, in 2010 and 2013, which never touched the major high schools. This has left TUSD with thousands of empty seats in four of its high schools, while it has two full size high schools jammed together on a single campus that was never designed for that and is stretched well beyond capacity. This makes little sense.

Moreover, appointing two coequal principals to manage the same space, operating schools with different needs and neither reporting to the other, is a weird management model that invites problems. The extent of these problems has varied according to who those principals happen to be, but overcrowding only exacerbates the potential frictions. 

Back in 2012, the Board asked staff to begin a process of separating Rincon and University high schools. A few months later the Board rolled this initiative into the broader process of high school consolidation, but that process never happened. In the meantime, the original problem has worsened: the RHS/UHS site has become more crowded, and TUSD has more empty seats at other high schools.

So the new Board took stronger action last May, asking the UHS site council to study possibilities for separation, with the assistance of Central administration. The report was due on October 1 and delivered on schedule. On October 3 the Board voted for further study of the recommended option. This second stage will include all stakeholders.

The Board, last week, could have directed study of more options. The report to the Board had narrowed the focus to three options (the other two being moving UHS to the current Santa Rita site, or simply closing RHS) before making its final recommendation. Contrary to my initial expectations, the preliminary analysis found lopsided advantages to moving UHS to the CHS site. Therefore it made sense, and was more straightforward, to focus on that single option. 

TUSD has sometimes been criticized, historically, for sending many options through a public study process, when the leading option is already clear. It would have been somewhat disingenuous to ask, for example, for continued study of closing RHS, when almost no one involved now believes that this is the best option. The upcoming work will therefore focus solely on whether moving UHS to the CHS site is viable. 

Advantages of the proposed realignment

Based on the information in the report, the realignment would have three basic advantages:

(1) The realignment would match students to existing capacity at the CHS and RHS sites. 

CHS is currently operating at about 50% of its capacity. UHS’s current enrollment would increase that capacity utilization to about 75%, which allows room for the expected continued growth of UHS. In the extreme case that every current CHS student switched to RHS, the schools’ combined enrollment would fill that site to 90-95% of its capacity, which still allows room for growth. 

The realignment might also allow for reasonable adjustment of the boundaries of Palo Verde, Rincon, and Tucson High Schools. TUSD currently buses some students to Tucson High who live much closer to RHS, and it buses other students to RHS who live much closer to Palo Verde. This makes little sense, given the chronic over-enrollment at THS and under-enrollment at PVHS. Of course, any boundary changes must be sensitive to integration impacts and approved by the federal court. 

(2) The realignment should improve educational opportunities for students at CHS (and RHS). 

CHS has some great strengths but has in other ways struggled for years, under various site administrations. It has earned a “D” in every year that the state has assigned grades, except in 2014 when it earned a “C.” RHS has been earning “C’s” for years, sometimes getting close to a “B.” 

Moving 700-800 students from CHS to RHS, and combining both high schools’ programs and student supports, thus creates an opportunity to improve education for both groups of students. It could give CHS students access to a much richer collection of courses, including Advanced Placement courses, than they now have. A school of about 1,800 students could also provide better language support for various small refugee populations with specialized needs, etc.

An appendix of the report shows that RHS is offering several dozen courses, in 2017-18 that are not offered at CHS. These include Astronomy, Marine Biology, Advanced Theater, Creative Writing, five music courses (orchestra, piano, and choir), and eight Advanced Placement or Honors or college-level courses; all of these courses are offered independently of UHS and would presumably be available to CHS students after a consolidation. 

The same appendix shows 17 courses that are offered this year at CHS but not at RHS, including Geometry and Algebra for English language learners, Arabic, Guitar, and Advanced Art. These would presumably become new options for RHS students. Other courses offered at CHS, such as Physics and Honors Pre-Calculus, could replace courses that RHS students have been accessing through UHS. 

The three vocational education courses offered at RHS this year are quite different from the three vocational education courses offered at CHS, implying an expanded menu of options for students at the combined school. 

If the realignment moves forward, then I will work hard for a strong new RHS, combining the best of CHS and RHS. In each of the two previous rounds of closures, TUSD closed ten schools simultaneously, which stretched TUSD’s management capacity. Focusing on this single realignment greatly increases the chance of success.

A separate issue is helping current CHS students to make a smooth transition to the new site. For example, CHS has many students who are refugees and may need extra counseling or logistical support. It is important to provide those supports. 

To ease that transition, the Board last week asked for consideration of a phase out at CHS, which would keep existing students at the school but enroll no new students. I am skeptical of that option, because it could create organizational and course scheduling problems more challenging than simply moving the entire school. Whether current CHS students would benefit from a phase-out is unclear: for the final CHS cohort, spending the senior year at an otherwise empty school might be depressing and a less appealing prospect than moving to a much larger school.

Appointing a coordinator to manage the transition would be an important step toward its success. 

(3) The realignment should allow UHS to prosper and grow, bringing new enrollment and revenue to TUSD.

Giving UHS adequate space at an independent campus (instead of being infamously concentrated in the RHS “basement”) would probably allow significant growth, without sacrificing academic standards. This growth would add to TUSD’s revenue, because it would probably mostly come from students who would otherwise enroll in high schools outside of TUSD. 

For example, suppose that the realignment allowed UHS to add 250 students over the long term, who would not otherwise attend TUSD schools, and that about half of those qualified for free or reduced lunch (not far from UHS’s current percentage). The standard state aid formula grants about $6,000 per student, excluding transportation assistance, and UHS this year received an additional $225 per student in state “performance funding.” Finally, each student eligible for free and reduced lunch brings another $500+ in Title I assistance. (These figures are not precise.) Given these assumptions, relocating UHS would generate over $1.6 million of additional revenue annually.

A 25% increase in enrollment and the commensurate growth of the UHS faculty would naturally allow it to increase the depth of its offerings and programs. This could help UHS to improve its already high national ranking.  

In summary, the realignment would make better use of existing space and probably improve the education offered to all three groups of students.

Transportation time to the CHS site 

The siting of UHS presents a unique issue, different from other high schools, because it has no attendance boundaries. To serve the entire district, it should ideally have a reasonably central location. To address this issue, the report compiled travel times to several potential UHS sites from each of the 25 TUSD schools that terminate at 8th grade. Comparing travel times to RHS and CHS, the difference was less than 5 minutes for a majority of those 25 schools (about evenly split between schools closer to CHS and schools closer to RHS). The extreme differences in travel times belong to Doolen, which is 10 minutes closer to CHS than to RHS, and Gridley, which is 11 minutes closer to RHS than to CHS. The Grant Road improvements will help to reduce travel times to CHS, from many points in Tucson.

Based on this analysis, it appears that moving UHS to CHS presents no significant gain or loss, from the viewpoint of travel time from various points around the district. 

CHS is however much closer to the University of Arizona, which may help activities that require UHS students to travel to UA or UA faculty to travel to UHS.

Desegregation considerations 

For years, one argument against the separation of UHS has been that the desegregation plaintiffs and special master would oppose it, leading the desegregation court to block it. In fact, it is unclear why this realignment would harm any of the goals of the Unitary Status (i.e., desegregation) Plan. CHS and RHS are both considered “integrated schools,” with somewhat similar ethnic composition (RHS is about 24% white, while CHS is about 19% white), and the combined student populations would likewise be integrated.

UHS is not considered “integrated” by the demanding standard of the USP, but with a white population of about 45% and a Latino population of 35-40%, it is also far from “racially concentrated.” The report notes a significant achievement: UHS was recently recognized by the national College Board as having the highest number (41) of Hispanic National Merit Scholars in the United States. 

The USP does not focus on students’ economic status, but with about half of its students eligible for federal lunch support, UHS is obviously not an upper class enclave.

The other critical consideration, from the viewpoint of the USP, is the impact on student achievement. I believe that merging CHS, which had a pass rate of just under 10% on this year’s AzMERIT exams (the second-lowest among TUSD’s major high schools) into RHS could produce a school that is stronger than either school individually. A good case can thus be made that a well-executed realignment would help to improve student achievement, for both the CHS and RHS populations. This is important from the viewpoint of the USP, partly because students classified as African American represent about 16% of the combined population of CHS and RHS, well above the average for TUSD. 

In short, I think that the realignment has a good chance of surviving court scrutiny. Over the next few weeks, TUSD will do a formal analysis of the desegregation impact, as required by the USP. 

The proposal to attach a new middle school

The board’s resolutions in 2012 and last May both requested study of the creation of a co-located high standards middle school. The proposed middle school would, unlike UHS, have open admissions. I have supported that concept throughout, as have many in the UHS community, but it raises different issues and some who support the high school realignment have expressed reservations. On the Board, Hicks has openly expressed concerns about the idea of a co-located middle school.

Therefore, the middle school has been dropped from the current initiative but remains on the table for future study. Dropping any immediate plan to add a middle school has improved the viability of the CHS site, which has the smallest capacity among TUSD’s ten major high schools. 

Stakeholder support

The success of any major change depends considerably on buy-in from the affected stakeholders. At this point, the following UHS stakeholders have expressed official support for the move to the CHS site: the Site Council, the Student Council, the Parent Association, and the Foundation and Alumni Association. The Midtown Division of the Tucson Police Department, and the Palo Verde Neighborhood Association (the neighborhood that contains CHS) have also expressed support. 

Thanks again for your interest in TUSD.

- Mark

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