When Rose Thomas found out Tucson Unified School District intended to close her son's high school as part of a plan to shut down 11 schools to confront a projected $17 million deficit, she wondered if it was even worth looking into other schools.
After all, before Thomas enrolled her son at Howenstine Magnet High School his freshman year, they had just spent a year at Naylor Middle School where her son struggled and where the school struggled to fulfill her son's special education plan from his previous school in Texas.
Thomas' husband, in the U.S. Air Force and currently in Afghanistan, won't be back from his tour until July and having to deal with school placement on her own is stressful.
"Right now I'm thinking homeschooling," she said.
The problem is that this past school year has been one of the best years her son has had since they've arrived in Tucson. His attitude about school has changed and he's improved academically.
"When I found out it was closing I was completely crushed," Thomas said. "He actually enjoys going to school and has experienced a lot of growth. ... There's no other school that I know that I can safely put him in."
Being part of a military family often means moving every four years. Thomas said her experience working with TUSD has been unlike any other district they've enrolled. "This is the first time I've come to a school system where I actually felt they weren't here to help me."
Thomas and other parents the Tucson Weekly recently talked to all attended a meeting with TUSD personnel on Wednesday, Jan. 23, to get answers to remaining questions. Since a large percentage of Howenstine students fall into the category of special needs - either having an individual education plan (IEP) or a 504 plan for students with physical or mental disabilities - parents who attended the meeting wondered if receiving schools will be as amazing an experience as they've had at Howenstine.
"My son came in at a third grade reading level last year, and in six months they've gotten him reading at least a fifth or sixth grade level," Thomas said.
At Naylor, Thomas' son spent most of the year in resource classes where he was given what she describes as busy work. "I didn't see hardly any growth. ... He was losing what he had already learned prior to that." When she needed to find a high school for her son, she visited every school and decided on Howenstine because she asked parents as they came in and out of the school what they thought.
It may seem an unorthodox method, "but I realized talking directly to parents was the best way. I never heard one bad thing from every parent I met that day. Not one," Thomas said.
At the Howenstine meeting, TUSD planner Bryant Nodine gave a presentation going over the district's reasons for the closures. He also explained that TUSD filed a closure request with U.S. District Court Judge David S. Bury, the judge also looking at the district's desegregation lawsuit. Nodine said the district expects a decision by April.
As parents explained their stories, especially those who had students with specific needs doing very well at Howenstine, Nodine recommended they look into Project More.
Parents we talked to said they don't see it as an equal placement, but one where the alternative education setting has a more transient student population and may not be as safe.
Nodine also said the school is under-enrolled and operates over budget. When one parent asked if there was an opportunity to recruit more students, she said Nodine replied the school didn't have the capacity, which didn't make sense if it is also under-enrolled.
Mendoza desegregation case representative Sylvia Campoy also attended the Howenstine meeting. She shared with the Weekly that after parents explained their concerns, she introduced herself and asked Nodine and other district representatives to refrain from presenting school closures as slam-dunk.
"I stated that both the Mendoza plaintiffs and Fisher plaintiffs had filed objections with the court on the school closures. I asked that in future presentations that the District inform parents of the court process in a more objective manner," Campoy said.
Campoy added that she also shared that according to the desegregation definitions, Howenstine is integrated, which is important as a magnet school. It's a one-of-a-kind school offering an inclusion program not found in any other high school in TUSD.
"It provides a safe and small high school environment for general education and exceptional education students who would not do well in a large high school environment," Campoy said. "One-hundred percent of the special education students, except for one self-contained class, attend general ed classes 100 percent of the time. If these students are moved to other schools it is not likely that they will be mainstreamed for this amount of time; their IEP will need to be modified and they will go from the least-restrictive environment to a more-restrictive environment which would be cause for parents to file a complaint. Given these facts, I asked why this school was selected for closure?"
Campoy, a former TUSD school board member, said during the meeting she asked how much Howenstine was being subsidized by other schools and Nodine reported $700,000.
However, some parents questioned that figure - looking at the 100th day attendance at Howenstine in 2012 which helped determined state funding, Howenstine had 160 students. The state pays between $6,000 to $7,000 for each students in attendance. On the conservative side at $6,000, that's $960,000 in state dollars. According to the district's own budget, Howenstine's budget is $637,255.
So why is Howenstine on the closure list?
Nodine told the Weekly that Howenstine is "in the red" by $700,000, and part of the issue is that it is a small school, with mostly a special ed population that doesn't pay for itself. He didn't know why that number isn't reflected in the school's budget on TUSD's website.
The school, he confirmed, is not getting deseg dollars because those funds are for racial desegregation, not for students with IEPs.
"There's not enough room for Howenstine to ever be a break-even school. It's not financially viable to even be a charter," he added.
Regarding Project More, which is a B school, Nodine replied that "some of what parents are going through is fear. More functions well and is a quiet environment for those who need that."
The Weekly talked to TUSD school board member Mark Stegeman, who voted against closing Howenstine during the meeting in December.
"I'd like to see a working group talk about these issues and the viability of having a school, like Howenstine, that works with a special ed population. We need to look at the option," he said.
Howenstine parent Carol Easterbrook has two special ed seniors at Howenstine. Her daughter, she said, suffers from anxiety and is a selective mute.
"Now she doesn't hesitate to ask questions. If she was in a bigger high school, this would not have happened," Easterbrook said. "Look, you have University High School for the gifted kids, and we need something for our kids."