District terminates ASU Prep lease, community is fighting to #KeepThePrep

In a decision that shocked both students and district residents, Phoenix Elementary School District board members voted on July 26 to unanimously terminate the lease of one of the highest-performing schools in downtown Phoenix.

ASU Preparatory Academy-Phoenix, a charter school operated by Arizona State University, has called the neighborhood near Seventh Street and Fillmore home for nearly a decade.

Despite the school’s 100 percent graduation rate and long record of academic excellence, the district has given the school, attended by about 1,200 students, an ultimatum. Either agree to an 800 percent increase in annual rent – equaling $2.7 million a year – or be forced to vacate the campus by June 30, 2019. Phoenix Elementary School District spokesperson Sara Bresnahan told Chamber Business News that they are willing to negotiate with the school and “meet somewhere in the middle.”

“In 2009, the district invited us to design and run a quality high school on the site of a chronically underperforming former school,” said Beatriz Rendon, CEO of ASU Preparatory Academy in a press release last week. “We have more than delivered, proving that all students, regardless of background, can be successful throughout their entire K-12 careers. This school in downtown Phoenix has far exceeded the performance of schools around the state and country with similar demographics. ASU Prep Phoenix should be emulated, not closed.”

With little notice on the agenda, dozens of parents, students and alumni attended the July 26 meeting to voice their support for the high performing public charter school. Board members went into executive session, then voted to offer the school 60 days to exclusively negotiate with Phoenix Elementary officials.

The next public meeting is on Thursday. Parents and community members plan to show up again in support of their school. The school’s Parent Teacher Organization has been encouraging those who cannot attend in person to contact Board members directly. On social media, the effort has garnered supporters, who are using #KeepThePrep.

“It’s a shame that it was even taken into consideration to close down this school. It’s an attack on this community,” said ASU Prep graduate David Marin Calderon, 19. “It shouldn’t be about business. This school provides a safe place for students, a great education, and has really helped the community thrive.”

Besides its 100 percent graduation rate, ASU Prep also helps 100 percent of its students achieve post-secondary educational opportunities. About 95 percent of the school’s students persist through college. Prior to ASU taking over, the school was described as “perpetually failing” by the Arizona Department of Education.

ASU Prep serves primarily low-income families and students from all ethnicities and cultures, and many of the students, like Marin Calderon, are first generation college attendees. The school offers before- and after-school activities and provides students three meals a day.

“I was at the school more than I was at home,” said Marin Calderon, who lived just a few blocks from ASU Prep in the Garfield neighborhood. “Sometimes I wouldn’t have anything to eat, so I could eat there after school. It’s just overall a safe place for students.”

The failure to renew the lease would force school administrators to scramble for new space in the increasingly crowded downtown Phoenix area.

“Not signing the lease is so much more than a financial dispute with ASU. This most directly affects the students and staff that have made this school the community that it is,” said Claire Duffrin, an ASU Prep graduate who is now a double major in the Barrett Honors College at ASU. “The goal of this board is to put the interests of the community first and I find it hard to imagine a place in which these students could find an environment which parallels that of ASU Prep.”  

The district said it is required under the lease documents to provide a full year’s notice to terminate the lease, but is working in “good faith” to exclusively negotiate with the school.  

“The perfect resolution would be to meet somewhere in the middle with ASU Prep and keep the school open,” said Bresnahan.

Megan Gilbertson

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