Tempe Union Superintndent Kevin Mendivil and the governing board have set one of his performance goals as studying the possibility of a gifted program in Ahwatukee. 

Tempe Union officials are studying the possibility of creating a gifted program in Ahwatukee, possibly at Mountain Pointe High School, partly as a strategy to combat enrollment decline and attract new students to the district.

The mission to study the matter and make recommendations by the end of the year, is a directive the school board on August 21 gave Superintendent Kevin Mendivil as one of the performance goals he must meet for any future salary incentives — although he himself had suggested to members that they include that benchmark.

“By December 2019, the superintendent will report to the board, in a public meeting, a recommendation from a study and analysis for the viability of a second gifted academy within the TUHSD system,” the board declared in a unanimously passed resolution.

“Creating a gifted academy for students in the southern region of the district, including Ahwatukee, will provide families a viable comprehensive public high school option in this specialized programming,” it further stated, calling such a program “another way to attract families outside the district, help mitigate the gradual enrollment decline and still ensure improved education outcomes for all students.”

Tempe Union since 2001 has operated a gifted program at McClintock High School. The Dr. Peggy Payne Academy offers students “the benefits of specialized, rigorous Academy courses as well as the variety of high school offerings and experience,” according to a district description.

But Mendivil said that, while that academy is open to any qualifying student, 80 percent are from the northern part of the Tempe Union District.

“We’ve not done anything for the southern part of our community,” he said, stating that an additional gifted academy in or near Ahwatukee would “first meet the needs of our students existing within our community, but also hopefully — with our a gradual decrease in enrollment — maybe we can recapture some students who are choosing other kinds of experiences that may be private or religious affiliation outside Tempe Union.”

Gifted and other programs whose offerings go beyond traditional curricula have been utilized by many public school districts in Arizona and across the country as a strategy to compete with charter schools that offer rigorous academic instruction.

For example, Kyrene Middle School in Tempe is in the second year of meeting requirements to become an International Baccalaureate school by 2020-21. The IB program is designed to motivate students through international education and rigorous assessment in all subjects, including a required foreign language.

The idea for a gifted program in one of the Ahwatukee high schools evolved from conversations Mendivil had had with Don Fletcher, an Ahwatukee resident who had run for the Tempe Union governing board last year and in 2016.

Fletcher said he told Mendivil that his neighbor’s daughter “absolutely adored the Peggy Payne Academy” and that having a similar program in Ahwatukee would be more convenient for parents and students who might not want to make daily trips to McClintock.

 “The school board has decided that there is enough interest to push forward with this, but we still need community input in it to make sure that this is something that is welcome and needed,” said Fletcher, who will be on a committee Mendivil is putting together.

“I think it’s something that’s greatly needed,” Fletcher added, noting that there is still much to be studied before the end of the year — including overall cost and how a faculty might be recruited.

Although Mendivil met in executive session Aug. 21 with the board to discuss the gifted academy as one of his performance goals, the superintendent elaborated on it after the closed-door meeting.

He noted that the gifted academy goal is only one of two objectives he’s been tasked with accomplishing this semester.

The other is creation of a “data dashboard” that “will provide the teacher, the school, the district office administrator and the parent with clear and meaningful information that visually tracks, analyzes and displays key performance indicators on school and district progress so that decisions can be made to improve student outcomes.”

“I think they’re both going to be beneficial for our students,” he said.

He said he will be approaching both goals “with a collaborative group of individuals representing our students, our families, our teachers and any other stakeholders that need to be a part of this process as we study the viability of a second gifted academy within our system.”

And he stressed, “My goal specifically states the region of the southern part of our district.”

Among the factors he is expected to consider are costs as well as its potential attractiveness to parents whose kids do not attend a Tempe Union school.

Mendivil said he has already held some discussions with interested parties, including Don Fletcher, an Ahwatukee resident who has run twice for the governing board.

On the “data dashboard,” Mendivil said the goal is to “pull the various data pieces for our students and understand the complete kid basically.”

He said such an understanding would aid counselors, who see students for a wide variety of reasons — such as attendance or discipline problems, or anxiety and stress — and that there is a need to develop “a multi-tiered system of support for our students.”

“The data dashboard is the conduit where we can put all that, organize it, create a framework that’s exclusive to a high-school-only school district,” he explained.

Such a framework would “allow our teachers to access data quickly so that they’re not as frustrated” over the performance of individual students and can address whatever hinders good performance.

Because of the loss of about 300 students in the last school year, he said, “We had to adjust our budget by $2.5 million.”

The gifted academy idea comes at a time when Tempe Union officials are developing strategies to blunt a slide in enrollment that was outlined in a consultant’s study earlier this summer.

With student head count intimately tied to the amount of money any district receives from the state, Mendivil had told the board that the district has lost several million dollars with a dip of about 300 students in enrollment.

He had conceded that until now, “the district has not had any deliberate action around recruitment and really touting who we are as a district” and so Tempe Union is addressing the issue on a number of fronts, including an advertising blitz across a number of social media and other platforms.

The number of students living within district boundaries hit a peak of about 12,500 in the 2005-2006 school year, according to Applied Economics, and “then trended downward by 1,000 students through 2009-10 due to the recession.”

“Following a small increase in 2010-11,” the study stated, “it has continued to decline, falling by another 850 students due to aging and increased competition from charter schools.”

Following a slight bump in 2013-14, it added, in-district student enrollment “has declined by 500 students since then” to about 11,000.

Further exacerbating the in-district enrollment picture is a surprising decline in the birthrate.

While for the last several years Tempe Union could depend on its total enrollment being bolstered by students who live outside its boundaries, that apparently hit a peak in the 2017-18 year..

But this year, the study said, “out-of-district enrollment declined significantly” — fueled by 134 fewer students from Phoenix Union and 47 fewer students from Maricopa Unified.

As of last April, total Tempe Union enrollment was just under 13,664 students with about 2,800 — or 20 percent of the total — coming from outside district boundaries. 

Desert Vista’s 2,669 students last April made that school the largest of Tempe Union’s seven campuses, with Mountain Pointe and Corona tied for second place at 1,888 students. 

The current housing market is impacting that enrollment picture. Older homeowners have become less willing to sell their houses — particularly because the market has driven up their value. As a result, there has been a lack of affordable housing that has slowed the influx of young families with school-aged children.

During the recession, the consultant told the board at a July meeting, “nobody wanted to sell their house because it wasn’t worth what they thought it was.”

“Now we’re living longer and staying in their homes longer,” Brammer explained. “And the values have gone up to such extent that a lot of people can’t get a better house. So, it’s slowing down that rate of turnover.”

Added to that is the trend toward multifamily development in the district.

Most newer apartment complexes are aimed at higher-income renters, discouraging families. “Most multifamily projects in the district are not targeted to — or affordable for — families with children,” the study said.

Charter and private schools also have exacted a toll, according to Applied Economics.

It counted 13 charters within district boundaries that have a total population of more than 3,700 students in ninth through 12th grade.

“Charter school enrollment in the district has increased by about 1,500 students over the last five years,” the study said, “with large increases in the two years prior to this year.”

Because the charter schools often appeal to parents seeking an academic program of above-average rigor, a second gifted program more physically accessible to families in Ahwatukee and southern Tempe may put Tempe Union on a more equal footing with charters in the enrollment race.

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