The Tucson Unified School District has a conundrum: How to capitalize on its crown jewel, the high-achieving University High School, while dealing with the realities of losing students to non-TUSD schools across the district.
It’s a vexing question, one that has eluded TUSD Governing Boards for years as members have talked, formally and informally, about trying to duplicate UHS at other locations in the district, moving UHS off the campus it has shared with Rincon High School for about 20 years, or expanding its intense curriculum into a middle school.
The TUSD Governing Board’s most recent foray into seeking this balance caused an entirely foreseeable public uproar as University High supporters pushed for a plan that would give UHS its own home. UHS would leave its current location sharing Rincon — and take over Catalina High School.
The displaced Catalina students would then move three miles east to Rincon. UHS students would get their own campus, but Catalina students would lose theirs.
It pitted the three schools against one another — casualties of small-scope thinking in a district that’s already too divided by region, family income and ethnicity.
Predictably, there was an outcry when the plan was presented in October, not least because its very existence caught Rincon and Catalina by surprise.
While UHS liked the plan, Rincon and Catalina were understandably opposed. Some in TUSD accused the board of favoring the academically gifted UHS students — who must test into the school — over the students at Rincon and Catalina.
Catalina, in particular, became a focal point because it serves a high number of students who are refugees, English-language learners, homeless or have disabilities. The campus is set up to accommodate students who use wheelchairs — changes that would have to be made to Rincon.
In this age of test scores reigning supreme in evaluating and grading schools, it’s a nasty side effect that such students might not be welcome at other schools, for fear they’d bring down scores.
This concern isn’t simply window-dressing. The testing achievement gap between white students and minority students persists, and TUSD remains under federal court monitoring because of its decades-long desegregation court case.
On Tuesday, the Governing Board decided to put the UHS/Rincon/Catalina plan on hold and instead evaluate all 10 district high schools for possible reconfiguration and restructuring.
This isn’t a new problem for TUSD. Some of its high schools, particularly on the east side, are under-enrolled, while others, like Tucson High, are more than full.
TUSD has a duty to spend its tax dollars wisely, and while on paper it might make sense to close campuses, a school is more than bodies in seats.
The board has laid out a tremendous challenge to the district.
Each high school will have a constituency arguing its case, and without a broader vision for TUSD as a whole district, splintering and factions are inevitable —and destructive.
The process must not be a replay of the previous UHS plan.
Every step in the evaluation process must be open to the public, deliberative, neutral and sensitive to the needs of every student in Tucson’s largest school district.
This editorial has been edited to clarify the diversity of the UHS student body.