A small school feel with a big school experience

Chad Gestson is an Arizonan you should know.

The 40-year-old superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District has transformed Arizona’s largest high school district into one of the most innovative school systems in the country.

From Paradise Valley to Tolleson, Phoenix Union spans 220 square miles and educates 28,000 high school students. The large, urban district serves a diverse student population, 85 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

But inside the district’s 20 high schools, Gestson and his team are transforming not only expectations for students, but also the traditional large high school model.

“We have to believe that every single student that sits in a chair today has all the potential necessary to not only succeed, but excel in high school and in college, career and life,” said Gestson. “We’ve also shifted the mindset internally of our adults to know that our job is not just to get students across a high school graduation stage, but to get students to and through college and into a successful career.”

Previously, the district only tracked graduation and dropout rates. Now with Gestson at the helm, the district tracks college going and completion rates.

“So, we’ve shifted the mindset from this idea of minimizing failure into… developing and maximizing the potential and success of all students, getting them to and through college,” he said.

Those shifts have led to results.

Dropout rates are at just 3 percent and continue to fall below state and national averages. Graduation rates continue to climb, reaching 85 percent this year. Gestson said the district hit its highest college matriculation rate ever, with over 50 percent of 2017 graduates enrolled in college.

But Gestson’s vision goes beyond statistics. Lorenzo Cabrera, Franklin Police and Fire High School principal, said Gestson is “transforming” Phoenix Union’s portfolio, taking the small school models like Franklin and Phoenix Coding onto the campuses of the district’s large comprehensive high schools.

“Not only has he impacted our culture, he’s impacted our entire district in terms of our trajectory,” Cabrera said. “I love his vision for the future and his plans to develop an innovative portfolio of schools.”

In August, Phoenix Union’s 2,000-student South Mountain High School will open as the Academies at South Mountain with four distinct academies.

“It’s the small school feel with the big school experience,” Gestson said. “It’s the best of both worlds. We believe this model can further transform the lives of our students.”

Gestson’s ideas and action have garnered him national attention. He is the first Arizona leader selected for the Broad Academy, a national fellowship for the top urban school leaders in the country.  

“Dr. Gestson is a lifelong learner who has impressed us with his deep commitment to driving a culture of excellence and equity for the students, staff and community of Phoenix Union High School District and developing strong, innovative schools that meet the needs of all learners,” said Hoa Truong, managing director of The Broad Academy.

Cabrera agrees.

“I’m here because I love this place and what he’s been able to create. I don’t see myself going anywhere else,” he said.

Megan Gilbertson

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