Five years ago, Santa Rita High School was home to more than 1,000 students.

Today the student body is smaller than the average TUSD middle school and is one of the smallest traditional high schools in the Tucson area.

Built to accommodate 2,070 students, Santa Rita’s enrollment of 489 has left the building severely underutilized. Course offerings are also suffering.

Despite limited resources and the fact that the Tucson Unified School District has shuttered nearly two dozen under-enrolled campuses in the name of efficiency and cost savings, closure is not a consideration for the east-side school.

“We are in a growth mindset in our school district, we do not believe in closing schools,” said TUSD Assistant Superintendent Abel Morado, who is in charge of secondary schools. “It’s not a question of being obstinate. We have faith and we believe that we can grow the enrollment in this school. We have a strong faculty and a strong administrative team. We have robust programs in this school.”

The charge to grow is mostly on the shoulders of principal James Palacios, who has been spending time in middle schools pitching programs and urging Santa Rita parents to do the same.

“As a principal, that’s one of my biggest jobs, going out and promoting what these programs are really about because many don’t know what’s really happening here,” Palacios said.

Enrollment was already spiraling down when Palacios came on board as leader in the 2013-14 school year. Then, there were around 800 students — down about 100 from the prior year.

By the end of that year, Santa Rita earned a letter grade of D from the Arizona Department of Education and enrollment plummeted even further to about 600 in 2014-15.

While Morado acknowledges that the letter grade may have had an impact, he couldn’t say to what extent.

“It’s individual stories,” Morado said. “There might be some people who would say ‘that’s exactly why I didn’t send my kid there.’ There may be others who say ‘that wasn’t much of a consideration. When I went and saw what they had to offer in the school, I was pretty impressed and I believe that my student is getting a great education here.’ ”

On the flip side, TUSD’s Palo Verde High Magnet School, which was overhauled because of its poor academic achievement, saw its efforts pay off in the 13-14 school year and earned a grade of A. Since then, it has gained more than 200 students, bringing enrollment to 1,140.

What Morado identified as a turning point for Santa Rita was the closure of one of two of its feeder schools — Carson Middle School in 2013.

Students from Carson were dispersed at Secrist Middle School and Dietz K-8.

For the most part, Dietz students feed into Palo Verde, Morado said. Secrist students feed into Santa Rita, but some have opted for Palo Verde, Sahuaro and Tucson High.

“Most schools we look at have a couple of feeders or will get students from other schools where they’re not the direct feeder,” Morado said. “At Santa Rita we’re noticing that it’s just Secrist and we’re getting a smattering from other places but it’s very small in numbers. The kids who live in the Santa Rita neighborhood generally come to school here, but when you have just one feeder, the enrollment is affected.”

THE IMPACT

Last year, TUSD spent $686,377 on utilities to keep Santa Rita running — almost as much as it spent at Palo Verde with twice as many students and more than it spent at Pueblo, home to more than 1,500 students.

Assigning Santa Rita’s student population to Palo Verde three miles away would bring Palo Verde close to the optimal utilization rate of 80 percent for high schools.

Beyond the fiscal impact, fine arts offerings are dwindling due to the low enrollment and there are fewer Advanced Placement offerings. The average TUSD high school offers about 11 AP courses compared with Santa Rita’s eight.

There was an attempt to implement an early college model at Santa Rita last school year in which students could earn college credit while in high school, but that has been abandoned.

Given the situation, it would seem that promoting the school would be a hard sell for Palacios, but he says the programs that remain are attractive.

Those include career and technical education offerings like construction and a JTED satellite campus that offers advanced culinary classes and 3D gaming and animation.

There is also the school’s freshman academy — a conscious effort to expose students to college and career options as well as the climate and culture of the campus. While those topics are generally covered in most high schools, guest speakers and exposure to different career paths is not always at the forefront. By placing ninth-graders in the academy, separate from the upperclassmen, those students’ interests and abilities are recognized early.

There are also four types of dual-enrollment classes for which students can earn college credit, something Palacios hopes to expand. The only TUSD school that has more types of dual-enrollment classes than Santa Rita is Pueblo, with five.

A new addition at Santa Rita is a focus on natural resources and agriculture, which has students learning sustainability practices, raising trout in the classroom and working in a greenhouse on a regular basis.

On days when students can get hands-on, attendance is 100 percent, said applied biological systems teacher Josh Ruddick.

“That tells you that students are engaged and interested in the work,” he said. “I believe that Santa Rita is on its way to becoming the premier east-side school for career and technical education. This is just one of our programs.”

For sophomore Ethan Taylor, Ruddick’s class is one of the highlights of his time at school, but he also appreciates the size of the student body.

“I enjoy this place because it’s really homey and not crowded like other schools,” Taylor said, adding that the students are welcoming.

A quality education can be achieved in schools that are small by design, but when they become small by default, opportunities often suffer.

The ideal utilization rate for a high school is 80 to 85 percent, according to an efficiency audit commissioned by TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. Santa Rita is at 24 percent.

The 2014 audit concluded that there was potential to consolidate up to nine elementary schools and one to two high schools, saying optimizing utilization would minimize operational costs.

Closure, however, does not come without cost. Until TUSD could find a renter or buyer, it would have to secure the property and patrol the campus to prevent it from becoming the victim of vandals and an eyesore to the neighborhood.

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There is also the chance that students would not migrate to another TUSD school and instead leave the district altogether as has been seen with past closures.

Expo for 8th-graders

In addition to having Santa Rita’s principal spreading the word about the programming, TUSD has hosted its middle school expo at the campus for the last two years.

The expo involves 3,000 eighth-graders converging on Santa Rita to explore the district’s high school options.

Students are bused from as far as Lawrence 3-8 School on the far southwest side to peruse information tables for each TUSD campus before they take a tour of Santa Rita.

Morado added that Santa Rita isn’t the only TUSD high school working to increase enrollment, although none has lost as many students as Santa Rita in such a short amount of time.

Catalina’s enrollment is down 42 percent from five years ago and with 755 students it is operating at 50 percent of capacity. Palo Verde is at 55 percent of capacity but the student population there is on the rise. Sabino has lost nearly a quarter of its enrollment from five years ago and is operating at 48 percent of capacity.

“This is happening in a competitive environment,” Morado said. “When I was growing up, it was natural to go to your neighborhood school, but now there’s more and more choices. We understand that and that’s why we say to principals, ‘Have your open houses, invite parents in, make sure students sign up for your school and make phone calls home to welcome them. Do tours, open your campus.’ ”

Asked whether the district planned to change feeder patterns, Morado said TUSD may review enrollment patterns to identify nearby neighborhoods not tapping into Santa Rita and connect with those families to plant the idea of making a change.

Earlier this year, TUSD central administration sent a letter to families of Dodge Traditional Magnet Middle School students and encouraged them to consider Cholla High. While few families took the district up on the offer, no such effort has been put forth for Santa Rita but it could be considered, Morado said.

For Rubin Salter, an attorney representing the African-American plaintiffs in TUSD’s desegregation case, the lack of action on the district’s part is troubling.

Santa Rita’s population is 42 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American, and 38 percent Anglo. More than half of the school qualified for free or reduced lunch last year, which is an indicator of poverty.

“A high school that small cannot afford to offer all of the amenities that particularly minority kids would need to keep them abreast,” Salter said. “And they’re not going to close an achievement gap when you cannot provide all that is needed, so in the end all students will suffer.”

The district is morally and legally responsible for rectifying the matter, and the solutions it has presented are inadequate, Salter said.

“It’s almost negligent when they sit there and see the problem and do nothing about it — take no hard action,” he said. “I think they need to do more to stop the bleeding.”

TUSD Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva said the board has not had a briefing on Santa Rita.

“We have to make sure that every student attending the school has access to a quality, balanced public education and if it comes to the point where we’re not able to provide all that a high school student can get at any of our other comprehensive high schools, then it is something we have to look at,” she said. “We have to create environments that parents want to choose for their kids. We have to look at where there are gaps in service and see if we can reinvent Santa Rita, reinvigorate it with another program — do we have the resources to do that?

“There are a lot of questions that deserve a public conversation.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea