Charter-school plans have been scaled back for two TUSD elementary schools.
The Tucson Unified School District had said the two schools - Manzo and Richey - would open next school year as charters.
Now Manzo will remain as-is for the next school year and transform to a charter in the 2014-2015 school year. And Richey, which was closed in 2010, will open next school year to preschoolers, rather than as a K-8, as originally planned.
The delay in making Manzo a charter school is attributed to the number of big ongoing TUSD projects, like closing 11 schools and implementing a new racial-balance plan.
While a number of families are attracted to Manzo's green programming, the 74-year-old school has low enrollment and poor academic performance, earning a grade of D from the state for the last two years. If it earns a D again, Manzo will be considered failing and placed on an improvement plan by the Arizona Department of Education.
Community members rallied around the west-side campus near West Speedway and North Grande Avenue during closure hearings. And the school was named a "Best Green School" for 2012 - the only K-12 school in the nation to receive the honor from the U.S. Green Building Council's Center for Green Schools.
In December, the TUSD Governing Board chose to transform Manzo into a district-run charter school rather than close it.
Since then, there has been a concerted effort to lend support to Manzo with specialists, instructional audits and professional development.
"We could have said, write a charter, come up with it in six weeks and let's start next year, but a real solid plan takes more planning than one semester," said Maggie Shafer, assistant superintendent in charge of elementary and K-8 leadership. "Since we're venturing into the charter arena, we're going to do this right."
Shafer expects that the new Manzo support will result in an academically stronger school, which will be better to market for the new charter school.
Like Manzo, enrollment and academic achievement were low at Richey when it was closed.
The Pascua Yaqui Tribe opposed the closure because the school, near North Oracle and West Grant roads, primarily served children from the tribe.
Since then, TUSD has agreed to a joint venture of sorts with the Pascua Yaqui, leasing a portion of the closed school to the tribe for a community center and working together to create a vision for a charter school, which will be sponsored by the district. The tribe also shares the cost of maintaining the campus.
Initially TUSD said Richey would be a K-8 charter school. It has been scaled back to a PreK-2 early childhood literacy academy.
The shift on Richey does not bother Ernette Leslie, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the community committee working with the school district. She says a high-quality preschool is highly sought after in that area.
"Especially with the new state standards for reading, we felt like an early-childhood program focused on literacy would be the best direction to go in to make sure students get a good start and can be successful," said Leslie, whose daughter attended Richey. A kindergarten will open in the 2014-15 school year with subsequent grades to follow over another two years.
Because TUSD does not get state funding for preschoolers, it intends to use federal funds for low-income children for the effort. That means opening Richey should not have a major affect on the district's budget, which has a $17 million shortfall.
The annual cost of utilities and maintenance is expected to be between $16,000 and $20,000 for the charter school, compared to the $150,000 that was spent to run the entire Richey school.
The charter will be run by a coordinator, not a principal, who has yet to be hired. Pat Delaney, who oversees TUSD's grant-funded preschool programs, might run it if a suitable candidate is not identified.
By starting out slowly, Shafer hopes the district will be able to build a strong academic school.
"Our goal is to have everyone who registers for preschool will be on level at the beginning of kindergarten," Shafer said. "That will allow us to have strong preschoolers who will be strong kindergartners. If we start taking students who are already behind, we run the risk of starting out with a school that doesn't have the achievement we want it to have."
Specifically what Shafer is aiming to create is a school that can compete with the nationally-recognized BASIS charter school, which will begin serving kindergarten through fourth-graders in the fall.
"Early intervention is the best strategy I know to narrow achievement gaps and to ensure student achievement," Shafer said. "It takes you two years to remediate when the kids are older. A good solid preschool diminishes the need for remediation."
Opening charter schools is advantageous to TUSD in that it will receive about $1,000 more per student in state funding, but that is not the only reason the district is going in this direction.
"We live in a charter-school world and it makes complete sense for us to participate and play in the game," Shafer said. "School districts need to adapt and it's time that we try something different."
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Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea