The Tucson Unified School District is considering giving the high-achieving University High School its own campus by allowing it to take over an existing high school.
A proposal presented to the TUSD Governing Board Tuesday night calls for UHS to move into Catalina High School, three miles west at 3645 E. Pima Street.
Catalina students would be transferred to Rincon High, 421 N. Arcadia Ave., a campus now shared by UHS students.
After years of discussing the idea of separating UHS from Rincon, where it has been co-located for more than 20 years, the board debated the plan Tuesday, but no immediate action was expected.
The move would also likely include a plan to establish a new high-standards middle school on or near the new UHS campus, tentatively named Gabrielle Giffords Middle School, after the former U.S. congresswoman who graduated from UHS in 1988.
More than 100 people turned out for the study session on the proposal, mostly to urge the board to support the proposed move of UHS to its own school. UHS students carried signs urging the board to give them their own campus.
University High School, which requires students to test in for admission, is the gem of TUSD.
It is the No. 1-ranked high school among all Arizona noncharter high schools, serves a diverse population that is more than 36 percent Hispanic and has produced more National Hispanic Scholars than any other high school in the nation.
Jahaziel Felix, a first-generation American and UHS student, made an impassioned plea for the board to make the plan a reality.
He noted that the teachers at UHS push him to be a better student and a better person and encourage the students to “become the best versions of themselves possible.”
“Our classrooms are incredibly cramped and crowded, impeding our ability to hear and learn effectively. This past year over 1,000 students applied for UHS; however, there’s only space for a few hundred,” he said.
And that’s one of the main reasons proponents of the plan want to split UHS from Rincon. The shared Rincon-UHS campus is above capacity.
The Rincon campus was built to serve 2,000 students, but between the two schools, serves 2,200.
Catalina, on the other hand, is seriously underpopulated.
The school was built to serve 1,500 students, but has roughly 740.
By combining the 740 Catalina students with the 1,110 Rincon students, Rincon would serve about 1,850 students, or near its capacity.
Proponents of the plan, including TUSD Governing Board member Mark Stegeman, who has spearheaded the concept for years, argue that filling two schools to near-capacity is a better use of resources than having one overcrowded school and one that is under capacity.
They also note that the high-achieving UHS draws students from around Pima County, including from outside the TUSD boundaries, and said that giving the school more room would likely increase not only the district’s student population, but the state funding that would come with more students.
The proposal is still in its infancy, but would move fast if approved by the board.
According to a report drafted by UHS staff, the proposal could become a reality at the start of the next school year.
The plan has support from a variety of stakeholders, including the Palo Verde Neighborhood Association, Giffords and University High staff, its alumni association and its parents’ association.
But the most important stakeholder, the plaintiffs in the district’s longstanding desegregation case, and the Special Master overseeing the case, have not yet weighed in.
Alexander Velgos, a social studies teacher at Catalina, told the Governing Board during the call to the audience that the school serves a diverse population of students who would be harmed if they were forced to move to a new school.
“Moving the students from that school would negatively impact their ability to complete school, would negatively impact their ability to be successful after school, in college and careers,” he said.
Fred Sandlin, a business owner in the area whose daughter is a freshman at UHS, said he came to show his support for a plan that makes “just plain sense.”
“I’m here because I was told there were some people not in support of this change. Apparently I was mistaken,” he told the governing board.
Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, a TUSD parent who has repeatedly run for the school board, said the plan the board was preparing to study was “very beautifully fleshed out — from one side.”
“There is absolutely not one word about the effect on the kids at Catalina,” she said.