Tim Steller, reporter at the Arizona Daily Star.


Things in the Tucson Unified School District tend to get complicated quickly.

Some recent examples: School closures, ethnic-studies debates, and schoolbooks that were removed from classrooms but not banned — only to have bans on them lifted later. Confusing and complicated.

So it might behoove the district, now that it has the chance, to take a step back, embrace a program that’s working and simply help it grow.

The issue is arising now because on Dec. 20, 2012, the day the TUSD board closed 11 schools, it also acted on a proposal by member Mark Stegeman, asking the district to come up with a plan for moving University High School to its own campus and adding a middle school there. University shares a campus with Rincon High School at the corner of North Swan Road and East Fifth Street.

The district was supposed to prepare a plan by this month, but with a new superintendent and an altered school-board majority, it didn’t. In a way, that doesn’t matter: The new board majority wouldn’t have approved a plan for moving UHS for many reasons, including that other alternatives have not been explored. The fact that Stegeman, a bee in the board majority’s bonnet, proposed the move also could have hindered it.

But now TUSD should jump at the opportunity to explore alternatives and choose one to help UHS grow.

In a school district that has lost thousands of students to charter schools and other districts, UHS is a rarity: It attracts students from outside TUSD’s boundaries. More than half of this year’s freshman class lives outside the district, though no TUSD residents are displaced by them.

The school has grown from about 640 students 10 years ago to 1,000 today, and at the same time it has increased the proportion of students from minority ethnic groups. Latino students went from 18 percent of the school’s population in 2003 to 32 percent this year.

Yet the district seems to have a complicated relationship with the school. UHS is by definition an elitist school — students must have high grades and pass a test in order to get in. Other high schools lose what might have been some of their best students to UHS. And it remains a disproportionately white school — 50 percent of current enrollment — in a district where most students are Hispanic.

The district’s ambivalent feelings about the school struck me when I visited UHS for the first time last spring, descending into the basement classrooms where the school is centered. I was shocked to see the run-down condition — missing ceiling tiles, water damage, rodent problems. This, I thought, is the renowned University High?

Those conditions are just one of the reasons some parents and supporters of the school want it to move. The main one is that sharing a campus with Rincon, while it has benefits, also has big downsides. Perhaps the biggest is the inflexibility of sharing bell schedules and common space with another school.

“It would be better for us to have our own campus, because of the freedom of being able to have our own schedule and being able to steer our own boat,” said Bonnie Klahr, a Green Valley resident whose two children graduated from UHS in 2010 and 2012, and who continues to serve on the school’s site council. “It has nothing to do with the administration at Rincon. It’s just difficult when you share a campus.”

But there are many complications to the idea of moving the school. Perhaps foremost is that it would almost inevitably mean closing another high school — a painful decision the board is loath to make now, after last year’s round of closures.

Among the many possibilities supporters discuss: Closing a centrally located high school such as Catalina and moving the new UHS there, while sending many of Catalina’s students to Rincon and other schools. Or Rincon could close and distribute its 1,100 students elsewhere.

Also problematic is the fact that University High looms large in the district’s Unitary Status Plan — the plan to improve the performance of minority students and resolve the decades-old desegregation lawsuit against the district. The plan requires TUSD to broaden its admissions criteria to University High and market the school to all middle-school students and their families in order to make the school’s ethnic breakdown more closely match that of the district.

Any effort to deal with University High apart from the Unitary Status Plan cannot work, said Sylvia Campoy, a longtime desegregation advocate.

“The district is in a choreographed dance relative to the other parties. They agreed to this dance,” she said. Stegeman’s proposal to move UHS amounts to saying, “Let’s change the music; let’s change the outfits, and I don’t like the dance,” Campoy said.

Other proposals could include opening an additional University High campus at another school — say, on the west side — or simply keeping it in place and helping it grow with portables and some sort of solution to the bell problem. When I asked board President Adelita Grijalva about it Monday, she was most sure of that possibility — helping UHS grow in place at Rincon.

“There are issues people have been very frustrated about,” she said. “But you also have an administration with a fresh perspective.”

All the more reason to dispense with half-measures, embrace the success of UHS, and think big about its future now.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter