More than half of the freshmen who will enroll at the prestigious University High School live outside Tucson Unified School District.
The school, ranked the nation's fourth best high school by U.S. News & World Report, is set to admit a record 176 out-of-district students as freshmen for the new school year, starting in August - more than 58 percent of the incoming ninth-grade class. That compares to 55 out-of-district freshmen this school year.
TUSD gets an average of $4,800 per student, so that influx of students from outside the district adds nearly $845,000 in funding for a district that has lost millions of dollars in state aid due to decreasing enrollment over several years.
The fact that students are flocking to a TUSD school rather than fleeing is proof that the UHS model works, school officials say.
Over the last five years, enrollment at University High has steadily increased about 30 students each year. Over that same time, TUSD has consistently lost students - approximately 1,100 each year.
"It's that old adage, 'if you build it they will come,'" UHS Principal Elizabeth Moll said. "Well, we've built a program here, and they are coming from surrounding school districts, and they want to be a part of University High School."
Not actively recruiting
University High hasn't been actively recruiting students from competing districts, Moll said. Rather, the school has made public its testing dates and has fielded inquiries from parents over the phone.
"Word has just gotten out," Moll said.
University High just started admitting out-of-district students three years ago.
The school currently has 114 non-TUSD students for all grade levels - a number that will more than double when the new freshmen matriculate in August. The largest group outside students is from the Tanque Verde School District, numbering 27. Sunnyside, Catalina Foothills, Amphitheater and Vail follow closely with 16 students or more.
With next school year's incoming class, about 30 percent of University High's students will be from outside the district. And more outside students could yet be added, as UHS will test 10th graders seeking admission in June.
The surge in outside enrollment has not come at the expense of TUSD students, Moll said. Every student who applied and met the standard was admitted.
University High has had the ability to expand because enrollment at Rincon High, with which it shares a campus, has dwindled over the years, creating extra space.
For Tanque Verde Superintendent Doug Price, the fact that students are choosing University High over the district's own high school is a double-edged sword.
"The good thing is, our kids are well prepared when they leave here after eighth grade," he said. "We'd love for them to go to our A-rated high school, but the end game is that kids have the best K-12 education possible."
He believes choosing University High is in part due to the fact that up until six years ago, Tanque Verde was a K-9 district. That left most of its students to enroll at Salpointe, Sabino and UHS for high school. Now that the district has a comprehensive high school, many of its families still have a tradition of attending one of those schools.
Tanque Verde Board Member Steven Auslander agreed that's true, but noted that Tanque Verde High has its fair share of open-enrollment students.
"This happens every year. There are families who go in various directions," he said. "It's a competitive environment, and we don't expect to be all things to all people. But our quality of education, the graduation rate, the dollar amount in scholarships, the awards, the activities and curriculum all speak for themselves."
Influx a positive
John Hosmer, a University High teacher for 26 years, sees the influx of students as a positive.
"One thing I think is beneficial for TUSD is the fact that there are a lot of students who have left for charter or private schools, and they're willing to return for a high quality education at University High," Hosmer said.
Hosmer said he believes the school will be able to maintain the quality of education, even with the rapid growth.
"We find that the scores each year maintain themselves, and the standards remain remarkably high," Hosmer said. "I believe that has to do with the high-quality teachers and an incredibly supportive administration."
The projected enrollment for the upcoming school year at University High is 1,000, Moll said, filling the campus it shares with Rincon High School at 421 N. Arcadia Ave. almost to capacity. Once that happens, TUSD students would get priority in admissions.
"That's one reason why University High would like to get its own campus at a certain point," Moll said. "We feel that we would be able to have the appropriate amount of students to really continue doing what we're doing on our own high school campus."
That issue has been brought before the TUSD Governing Board in the past. The board asked for a plan to address it in November.
TUSD Ethnic makeup
• Anglo: 23.3 percent
• African-American: 5.5 percent
• Hispanic: 62.3 percent
• Native American: 3.8 percent
• Asian-American: 2.4 percent
• Multiracial: 2.8 percent
Ethnic makeup of UHS
• Anglo: 50.8 percent
• African-American: 1.6 percent
• Hispanic: 31.1 percent
• Native American: 0.8 percent
• Asian-American: 11.7 percent
• Multiracial: 4.0 percent
Ethnic makeup of current UHS students from outside the district
• Anglo: 54.4 percent
• African-American: 5.2 percent
• Hispanic: 23.6 percent
• Native American: 0 percent
• Asian-American: 10.5 percent
• Multiracial: 6.1 percent
* The ethnic makeup of the incoming out-of-district UHS students is not available.
From Out of District
• UHS has seen a steady increase in out-of-district students.
• This year's seniors: 8
• This year's juniors: 22
• This year's sophomores: 29
• This year's freshmen: 55
• Next year's freshmen: 176
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea