Of the 14 schools up for possible closure to help eliminate a projected $17 million deficit in the Tucson Unified School District, at least one school has hopes of surviving.
That's because Manzo Elementary School has chickens.
The school, in the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood, has developed a nationally recognized ecology program that provides students with hands-on lessons in growing and raising their own food, while incorporating math and reading.
Principal Mark Alvarez told the Tucson Weekly that when Manzo teachers and parents first heard the school was on the list of possible closures, they weren't surprised; after all, the school has been on previous closure lists.
"We recognize that we've had to do a lot of the marketing on our own, which we are doing," he said. "This year, we've been recognized by the National Geographic and the British Journal of Medicine. ... There are neat things happening with our kids, and the community recognized that."
When the TUSD board met Tuesday, Nov. 20, to discuss the closures, school-board members and staff discussed the idea that the ecology program could easily be moved to Tully Elementary, the school identified to accept Manzo students for the 2013-2014 school year.
But Alvarez said that after administrators toured the school, they recognized it would be difficult to replicate the thousands of dollars in landscaping and infrastructure installed at Manzo in the last four years.
Perhaps that's why board member Michael Hicks, during a special board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 27, asked if it was possible for Manzo to be developed into a district-run charter school. (The district has met with neighbors of Richey Elementary School, including the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, to create a district-run charter school to replace Richey, which was closed by TUSD two years ago. The district's first charter is expected to open this fall.)
The board was told that any effort to turn Manzo into a district-run charter school would have to be introduced on the agenda at the next board meeting. Alvarez said that discussion has brought hope to those who support keeping Manzo open.
"If it means being able to keep this school open and the program alive, we support Manzo becoming a charter school," he said.
It would be impossible to transfer Manzo's award-winning desert landscaping, which includes rain gutters and cisterns installed as part of an extensive rainwater-collection system. But what seems to please people most is the fact that the kids are growing food at the school; recycling every scrap of paper and empty printer cartridge; and composting every scrap of uneaten food from the cafeteria. There's also the chicken coop, the hydroponic system that uses tilapia to provide fertilizer for indoor crops, and a new greenhouse that is ready for more crops.
The students are also involved in planning. They are currently building a bird sanctuary in the school's courtyard, which houses the greenhouse, chicken coop and fenced-in garden. The work is funded by a grant from the Audubon Society.
The tilapia pools, currently housed in a math classroom, will be relocated to the greenhouse as soon as the space is ready. As Alvarez pointed to the fish and the plants they help support during a tour, a student eagerly stepped forward to explain the series of tubes in the system, and the special soil used for a crop of lettuce and other greens. When she was done, she walked matter-of-factly to her seat to finish her math work.
Alvarez said that although the ecology program gets all the attention, within the walls of the school, it's all about math. During the last two special board meetings to discuss school closures, Manzo was painted as a school that was near-failing, which was looked at as a reason to support Manzo's closure.
Alvarez, principal for the past three years, said the school's students have scored high in reading and writing, but acknowledged that improvement in math scores is taking time. Part of the problem, he said, is that during his second year at the school, it changed to a new math curriculum. Alvarez said this is the first year everyone is on board with the program, and he expects scores to improve.
The ecology project was started almost six years ago by school counselor Moses Thompson, who started working with students at a vacant lot next door to create a desert habitat. When the previous principal asked Thompson to help create an ecology program on the school grounds, it took off, with most of the projects receiving grants or getting funded through donations.
Thompson, like Alvarez, hopes the governing board recognizes how hard the school has worked at improving academic performance. "We are about to blow the doors off," he said. "In June, when our (AIMS) scores come in, they will recognize we've been laying groundwork right now, and we've been successful."
During the Nov. 27 special meeting, board member Adelita Grijalva pointed out a problem with closing Manzo.
"Now if we are closing Brichta and Menlo Park ... I urge board members to reconsider, because it looks like we are wiping out a whole side of town there," she said, referring to the three westside neighborhood schools.
Tully, the school identified to take Manzo students if it is closed next year, is a considerable distance away, Grijalva added.
The school-closure plan presented to the board has Brichta and Menlo Park moving to a new K-8 school at Maxwell Middle School. Some students could also go to Tolson Elementary. Manzo students would go to Tully, a magnet elementary.
For the full list of schools up for possible closure, visit The Range, our daily dispatch, at daily.tucsonweekly.com.
During the Nov. 20 special meeting, the board considered closing Hollinger, which was identified as having the state's only dual-language program for gifted students, as well as Pueblo Gardens K-8 and Santa Rita High School. During the Nov. 27 meeting, however, the board did not vote to close those schools.
Public hearings on the school closures are scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m., and Monday at 6 p.m., Dec. 8 and 10, at Catalina High Magnet School, 3645 E. Pima St. The board will also hold a special meeting on Dec. 20 to discuss the final plan.