Last year, Washington Traditional School discontinued their 6th grade, forcing all 6th graders in the Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) to attend either Mile High Middle School or Granite Mountain Middle School. (See: Washington Traditional School Discontinues 6th Grade) If the parents didn't want their 6th grade children put into a large middle school, it simply didn't matter, because that was the decision made by the school district.
What was interesting was how the decision was made. Was this a decision made in the in the public light, where the community could scrutinize it? Did the PUSD School Board discuss it and vote on it? No. It was a decision made by the District Leadership Team (DLT), consisting of a group of administrators, Superintendent Kevin Kapp, a single representative from the School Board, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Chris Reynolds and Renee Raskin, the Chief Financial Officer. Since a quorum of the School Board is not involved, the DLT is not required to abide by Open Meeting Laws. Yet, their decisions potentially carry as much weight, and affect students and families as greatly, as the decisions made by the PUSD Governing Board.
Last year, when asked about the Washington School 6th Grade decision, Superintendent Kapp adamantly denied that the decision was made in secret, stating, "...this decision was NOT made in secrecy... If we wanted to make a secret decision we would certainly not share the decision with parents nearly a month before the end of school – we’d wait until the last day of school or even until summer."
But, later, when pressed about who else knew about the decision besides the DLT, Kapp responded, "You’re missing the point. It is not necessary or even wise to always include affected parties in the process of making tough decisions. I have yet to see an affected party agree with a decision that adversely affects their environment or situation."
Therefore, following this philosophy, parents were not warned in advance by Washington's Principal Harold Tenney that closing the 6th grade class was a possibility.
The Fate of Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy
Now, as the DLT is grappling with the expected budget cuts for next year, it has been reported that Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy (NELA) could be in danger of being closed. Could the DLT do the same thing to Northpoint that they did to the 6th grade class at Washington?
When asked via email about Northpoint's status, Kapp wrote back, "There's a lot of "chatter" throughout the district, but that's been going on since NELA opened! We're analyzing all schools, programs and services for possible reductions, etc. NELA is part of the district, so NELA is being studied also."
According to Kapp, the decision to close any school won't be solely made by the DLT, "The folks that make these decisions, the School Board, has not discussed the closure of NELA or any school at this point. That doesn't mean they won't, but it hasn't occurred up to this point."
Northpoint Director Geneva Saint-Amour communicates frequently with parents, keeping them informed about school activities, events and even news that potentially affects Northpoint. Here is a copy of an email sent to parents by Saint-Amour, in which she addresses the "chatter":
I was hired to build a school from ground zero... a task many administrators have never experienced. I have worked very hard in the past three years to fulfill that appointment. Unfortunately there was not a solid, multi-year plan created for Northpoint before it opened. Each year of existence Northpoint has had to battle for staffing, facility needs and recognition of the multitude of start up challenges that a new school brings. Also, recruitment resources and plans have not matched enrollment expectations-at least up to this point. Yet with all of these hurdles--- Northpoint has become more than a reality, but a top-notch, attractive school that is a feather in the cap of PUSD.
In just two and half years PUSD has a school that is recognized nationally, admired statewide and envied locally by educational professionals. This school has attracted enrollment from neighboring districts, families have moved to Prescott to attend Northpoint and foreign citizens have found ways to enroll and attend. We currently have over 30% of enrollment from out of district. In addition to admiration from other educators we are able to boast high test scores, great AYP, high attendance and forthcoming accreditation after just 2 ½ years!
PUSD wanted a four year high school that would offer students a choice, this choice was to offer a college prep magnet school that was fully integrating the Expeditionary Learning model. I understood that the school would serve students in grades 9 through 12 with a rigorous curriculum that embraced and embodied the Expeditionary Learning pedagogy and principles. The task of creating a fully functioning four year high school is not quite complete.
Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy is an exciting place for a student that is staffed by an amazing team of teachers. These are folk who write their own curriculum with no "teacher's edition", they prepare student for AIMS testing with no textbooks, they travel with students for real life learning experiences, they sleep on gym floors and drive their own buses..all with no "extra duty pay" while serving all campus duties with little or no prep time.
The 10.5 teachers who currently serve grades 9, 10 and 11 are poised and ready to add a 12th grade. These staff members teach across content areas, grade levels and pedagogy while focusing on state standards and producing test scores that are higher than the national, state and county average. And they are ready to finish the job that they were hired for...teach at a four-year high school.
Strategic Planning meetings as recently as four months ago included discussion of new staff for the 12 grade needs. There was also discussion of eventually realizing full staffing as student numbers continued to rise. However, due to recent budget uncertainty the Northpoint staff is ready to fulfill their assignment without additional staff. Plans are laid for the existing 10.5 FTE instructional team to serve 200 students. That is the expectation for the coming school year.
I have reviewed the numbers presented to the DLT. I am aware of the fiscal implications made by these reports. However there is a piece of this formula that is not presented in these numbers. After reviewing all 9 school sites, the anticipation of growth was not figured into the equation. In looking at the 4 sites that need to "level the field" there is only one that can demonstrate a proven plan for enrollment growth. Northpoint will add another grade level in 2009-10. Adding 12th grade offers the opportunity to admit up to 75 new 9th grade students. This is a possible growth of over 56%. Can any other school offer 50% growth? Rather than focusing on what must be eliminated to "level the field" we must look at what must be added to ensure over 50% growth.
Considering that nothing has changed except high test scores, national recognition, well-trained staff, accreditation and a full four year academic program...I certainly do not see any reason that we cannot anticipate at least 68 new enrollments at NELA.
In review of this information, one must also ask..what are the benefits of closing Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy? Student survey data indicates that over 100 of the currently enrolled students would leave the district ( $500,000 loss) and at least 3 staff members would need to be transferred due to seniority ($135,000 cost). Additionally the district accepted over $400,000 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to train and prepare teachers for the model; this may have fiscal implications and will certainly reflect on PUSD.
Yes, there are those who want to use Northpoint as the scapegoat..and that is understandable being "the new kid on the block" but it is time to shelve the idea of closing Northpoint. This school is and will continue to be a beacon of what future high schools will look like. For PUSD to end their involvement with such progressive education would be a sad testament to our priorities and belief in "the smart choice".
Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy
551 First Street
Prescott, AZ 86301