The nationally-ranked Gilbert Classical Academy is operating at 179 percent capacity, and Gilbert Public Schools may decide to close Gilbert Junior High School and move the academy there.
Gilbert Public Schools opened the Gilbert Classical Academy 10 years ago to offer more college-prep options to parents and students and compete with an ever-growing number of charter schools.
The academy, which combines academic rigor and music education, recently was ranked the 30th best public high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
The rankings are calculated using factors such as the percentage of students who participate in Advanced Placement classes and who are deemed to be ready for college.
The school has a 100 percent AP participation rate and 98.5 percent of its students are determined to be prepared for college, according to the report.
Since it opened in 2007, the academy has grown from 200 students in grades 7-9 to more than 500 in grades 7-12. The student body has grown so large that district officials are considering moving the academy to another campus.
The academy currently operates at Greenfield and Elliot roads on a campus that had been home to a JROTC academy that wasn’t as successful as the district had hoped.
After the JROTC school closed, Gilbert Classical Academy opened its doors as a way for the district to compete with Gilbert’s many charter schools.
“I don’t know if they really could foresee how many charter schools were coming,” said Administrative Assistant Candy Dratnol, who’s been with the academy since it opened. “We knew we were going to have competition, but I don’t know if they knew the competition was going to be as big as what it is right now.”
Principal Dan Hood said even though charter competition is stiff, the school has held up well and has even received international interest because of its high rankings and performance.
“Success draws people in,” Hood said. “We get people from all over the world who call us and say, ‘We want to come to your school.’ “
Hood and Dratnol said they’re hoping the school can leave its current campus soon.
The journey toward a new home
The district governing board is expected to look at moving the academy to Gilbert Junior High School.
But that will be a process, according to Irene Mahoney-Paige, district spokeswoman.
On May 30, the board will vote on whether to close Gilbert Junior High, which Mahoney-Paige said is currently operating at under 50 percent capacity.
If board members vote to close the school, its students would be relocated to Mesquite Junior High School about three miles away.
“Anytime you look to close a school it’s an emotional thing,” Mahoney-Paige said. “It’s an emotional process because people have ties to their schools.”
That being said, Mahoney-Paige added that most parents understand that the middle school can’t provide resources like arts and athletics programs when it has so few students and realize that moving to Mesquite could give students those opportunities.
“It seems like parents are disappointed that it’s come to this but they kind of realized it’s the best thing,” Mahoney-Paige said.
Mahoney-Paige said Mesquite Junior High would still be operating under capacity if the move is approved by the board.
If the board decides to close the middle school, another vote will be scheduled to decide whether to make the campus Gilbert Classical Academy’s new home and subsequently allow more students to join the academy.
Strict standards to prepare for college
Students at Gilbert Classical Academy are required to take a music class (band, orchestra or choir) from seventh through ninth grades, at which point they can continue music or pursue other electives the school offers, such as psychology or Latin.
Dratnol described the school as a “college prep school” and said once students enter 10th grade, they begin taking AP classes — accelerated courses that give students the chance to earn college credit if they score high enough on a year-end exam.
In 10th grade, students are required to take AP world history.
In 11th grade, they’re required to take AP language and composition, AP physics 1 and AP United States History.
Students end their time at the school by taking AP literature and composition, AP calculus and either AP chemistry or AP biology their senior year.
Principal Hood said because of the very prescribed curriculum at the school, students have to withdraw from the school if they fail a class.
That’s why Dratnol said it might not be for everyone.
“It’s tough here and they have to work really, really hard,” Dratnol said. “Sometimes along the journey I think they’re thinking, ‘Is this really worth it? I could be at a comprehensive high school probably doing at least half of the workload I’m doing here,’ and so I think at the time it’s hard for them to see the big picture.”
However, Hood said when students go to college, they reap the rewards of having a rigorous high school education.
“It is hard and there are kids that resent that until they go to college,” Hood said, adding that the school loses about 20 students per year because of the strict standards. “When they go to college they always come back and say, ‘It was all worth it, I’m thriving, I’m not the one that’s struggling anymore, I’m the one that’s tutoring the other kids.’ “
Success creates overcrowding
The school’s success currently presents the school with a big problem.
According to a document released at an April 19 governing board meeting, the academy is operating at 179 percent capacity.
That’s meant that the school has had to get creative to continue to serve as many students as possible.
The school’s campus is small, without a field or gym. Students use the field at a school across the street and athletes are bused to a gym at the school’s district offices.
The cafeteria doubles as an auditorium, but students have to sit on the cafeteria’s floor during assemblies because the school doesn’t have enough chairs to accommodate all its students at once.
The school has several portable classrooms, one of which serves as the choir room. However, because of the low ceiling height in the portable structures, there isn’t room for a choir stand.
Dratnol said the school has made the most of its logistical challenges.
“We have accomplished amazing things in a very small package and with not a lot of facilities to use,” she said. “We need more space. We’ve been very productive, but it is very difficult.”
Hood said having a campus with more space to host athletics would help students feel more pride and attachment to the school.
“When you have athletics on campus you get to create that culture, that pride in your school to where ‘hey, I’m going to the game after school’ so we hang around and do homework and then we go to the game,” Hood said. “We don’t do that here, they always go home.”
Dratnol and Hood said they’re hoping the governing board will vote to give the academy a new home, with Dratnol adding that a more comfortable campus could help the school have even more success.
“I just think about all the things we’ve done over the last 10 years and our accomplishments and the facilities that we have,” Dratnol said. “If we had an opportunity to have other things it can’t do anything but enhance what we’ve done so far.”
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