Column: San Dimas High School co-location rules!

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of an American cinematic masterpiece filmed in Scottsdale and other Arizona locations- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Arizona locations stood in for San Dimas California. The “strange things afoot” Circle K is still at the corner of Southern and Hardy in Tempe, and you can still hit the excellent waterslides at the same park as Napoleon Bonaparte in Mesa. You can read a list of filming locations here. The subject of our current discussion is how to make Scottsdale Unified’s Coronado High- the stand-in for San Dimas High- excellent again.

Screengrab from the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Scottsdale Unified has had a turbulent decade. Taking the time to talk with close observers of district practices reveals a rogue’s gallery of terrible decisions. Organized efforts to run off veteran teachers have been alleged in the past. NPR has reported on a shocking degree of crony-capitalism in bonded construction projects. Observers also allege that a “progressive” school of instruction gained hold a decade ago, a bad match for a district full of “tiger moms.” Critics of past administrations also allege that there were organized administrative efforts to “punish” voters after a failed override election by cutting valued programs.

Arizona may have once been a place where an administration could engage in this level of bumbling without consequence. This however delightfully is no longer the case. The great recession hit, lowering property prices, creating a variety of new options for Scottsdale families as charter schools expanded and districts became more active in open enrollment. The trend in AZMerit scores reveals that Scottsdale Unified has righted their academic ship with scores trending positive. The district however has a great deal of underutilized space, which brings us back to Coronado High.

Coronado High appears to have the lowest space utilization in Scottsdale Unified. The website collects data on both academic performance and real estate prices within school attendance boundaries. These two images derive from the website:

Our focus should not be on assigning blame on why neither reading nor math proficiency cracked the 20 percent threshold. The list certainly goes far beyond the Coronado staff- scores like these have always been shaped long before high school. I include these images only to make clear why many parents have chosen other options for their students whether district or charter etc. If you are indifferent to the academic performance of your zoned high school (many retirees are) there is less expensive real estate available. If you like the neighborhood, there are other highly desired schooling options available. We should focus entirely upon how to turn a situation that Bill S. Preston, esquire might describe as “most non-triumphant” to something on the “bodacious” to “EXCELLENT” spectrum.

Turning Coronado’s vacant space from a burden to an asset would make an outstanding first step in a turnaround process. A detailed study of New York City facility co-locations by Temple University scholar Dr. Sara Cordes found significant academic benefits to district students and financial benefits to district schools as a result of co-location of charter schools into underutilized district space. District schools with vacant space go from using resources on space they don’t use to generating revenue- turning financial lemons into lemonade. Cordes’ estimates translate into an additional $7,800 per 20 student classroom in the Arizona context.

Scottsdale Unified has magnet programs with waitlists and strong track records of success. Why not allow Cheyenne Traditional to replicate into currently vacant Coronado space as a co-located K-8? The current Cheyenne Traditional is packed and has waitlists. If the district doesn’t move to satisfy those waitlisted families, they won’t have cause to complain when many of them transfer to either charter schools or open-enrollment powerhouse Madison Elementary District. A second Cheyenne Traditional campus sounds like a splendid idea to not only improve Coronado’s finances, but also to create a new K-8 pipeline into the high-school. These are both beneficial, and again you don’t get to a 17 percent high school proficiency rate as a high school without problems at the K-8 level contributing strongly. If Cheyenne Traditional does not desire to replicate, there are plenty of high-demand charter schools who might.

Another solution is to replicate a high demand, STEM district model like Phoenix Coding Academy. Recently signed Senate Bill 1161 allows for school districts to occupy underutilized or empty school buildings outside of their traditional boundaries as a way to better serve more students’ needs. The Phoenix Coding Academy model has three core pathways to choose from that align to industry needs, including computer programming and cybersecurity, and would set more Scottsdale students up for success in a field that cannot find top talent fast enough. Scottsdale Unified could be a thought leader in innovation and workforce pipeline needs within unified school districts, rather than only being reactionary and resistant to change.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the district found itself literally with nothing to leverage other than empty buildings. They turned this lone asset into an opportunity for teachers to create their own schools. The district, which had been an academic disaster long before the hurricane, made remarkable improvement. Arizona has a great number of high-demand schools with families stranded on waitlists. Scottsdale Unified has a large amount of vacant school space. It’s not hard to see what should happen next. Districts and charters should be excellent to each other, and when the academic trends improve, well I’ll let Abe finish the thought:

Matthew Ladner

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