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Renée Schafer Horton: The gem that is Catalina High School
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Renée Schafer Horton: The gem that is Catalina High School

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Emily Kittle Morrison loves her high school alma mater the way some people love rock bands, reciting their greatest hits from memory: the Cinderella stories, the linguistic and cultural diversity, the famous alumni.

Listening to her fervor, it would be easy to assume she’d graduated within the past few years. But Morrison donned her Catalina High School graduation garb in 1960, when the school was only three years old and packed with the 2,000 students it was built for. It was the hub of a neighborhood of homes headed by white-collar professionals raising families chock-full of children.

Only about 750 students attended CHS in 2019, a number that dropped even more after the pandemic began and students had to access online learning at home. The neighborhood is mixed-use, and more than 90% of CHS students live below the federal poverty level, are homeless or served by Youth On Their Own. Additionally, CHS serves one of TUSD’s largest special education populations and refugees from 39 different countries speaking 46 different languages.

The refugees are what drew me to CHS in 2010 to do a six-week practicum for my teaching certificate program. My classroom was like a mini United Nations. I’ve rarely had so much fun — nor learned so much — in such a short period.

So, I understand Morrison’s enthusiasm. CHS is a special place filled with students who have a million strikes against them who nonetheless hope the promise of education leading to a better life still holds true.

Wanting to fulfill that promise is what led Morrison to join with a small group of alumni and form the Catalina High School Foundation in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of the school’s inception.

“We were sitting at the anniversary thinking we needed to do something,” said Morrison, the Foundation’s founding president. “We all had a great time in high school and achieved the American dream — went to college, had good jobs, bought homes. We wanted to perpetuate that opportunity for current students and recognized TUSD didn’t even have the money to fully fund the library or a school nurse. We had to do something.”

The Foundation funds grants through membership dues and donations from alumni, community members and non-profits. Those grants are translated into immediate help for CHS students and teachers.

“If a team needs t-shirts tomorrow, we get them the money this afternoon,” Morrison explained. “There are no administrative hoops such as there would be if the group applied for assistance through TUSD. We help directly and quickly.”

Arizona public schools have had economic woes since the 1990s when the dual sword of charter schools and open-enrollment began slicing through public school enrollment. Reports from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in the late 1980s, Arizona was average nationally in terms of per-pupil spending. But beginning in the mid-1990s, funding began slipping to where Arizona is now one of the lowest funded U.S. public education systems on a per-pupil basis.

Thus, the need for groups like the CHS Foundation. Because, honestly, chemistry teachers shouldn’t have to have a bake sale to pay for beakers and petri dishes.

“I think it boils down to a legislature that thinks of education as an expense instead of an investment,” Morrison said.

That’s definitely part of it, but demographics also play a huge role. When schools are funded based on student numbers, fewer students mean less funding. Less funding means fewer school activities and curricular offerings to attract students who are shopping around through open-enrollment. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves the poorest students with the fewest options at schools with the least amount of opportunity.

Not the definition of equitable, is it? Which is why I’m writing about this today.

Because you — yep, you there drinking your coffee or your kale smoothie — have the chance to be a hero. You can join the CHS Foundation for only $25 annually and help out immediately. Or better yet, if you’re one of the lucky ones who got a $1,400 stimulus check this past week and you’re looking around your furnished home and scanning your full refrigerator wondering what you should buy with that money, I suggest donating some of it to the CHS Foundation so they can put it to good use.

The Foundation pays for sports uniforms, classroom equipment, music and art supplies, field trips and even things like underwear and food for needy students. Last spring it paid for a required University of Arizona entrance test for one of CHS’s top students who couldn’t afford the test fee. The student passed and was admitted to UA on a full scholarship.

Let that sink in: There is a student at the UA today who wouldn’t be there if the Foundation hadn’t been able to cover the fee for an English proficiency test.

“I know schools die,” Morrison said, “but the Foundation’s hope is that this acclaimed, mid-century modernist building with a rich history, amazing alumni and incredible students — many from war-torn countries— can survive with interest and investment from education-minded supporters.”

It’s my hope too, and I’d like it to be yours. To find out more about the CHS Foundation, go to catalinahighschoolfoundation.org. Then once the pandemic ends and visitors are allowed on campus, visit CHS to see its unique possibilities. I guarantee it will be the most uplifting way to end your COVID hibernation.

Renée Schafer Horton is a regular op-ed contributor. Her past lives were in higher education, journalism and as CEO of a small country called Home, population six. Email her at rshorton08@gmail.com.


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