By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
Mekenzie Valdivia was 16 when she dropped out of Campo Verde High School in Gilbert.
The teen was living with her aunt at the time and her mother, who was jumping from place to place for shelter, needed some help.
So, Valdivia quit school, where she wasn’t doing too well, and began working 45 hours a week for two years. Her four older siblings had already dropped out of school and earned GED degrees.
“Finally, my boyfriend tried to get me to go back to school,” Valdivia said.
She arrived to Canyon Valley School in Gilbert over the summer with 7.5 credits to her name – well shy of the minimum 22 credits she needed to graduate.
Thanks to the alternative school and Valdivia’s drive, the 18-year-old will now graduate on time May 17.
Alternative schools have had a bad connotation in the past, seen for the most part as a last-stop for problem students banished from traditional campuses.
But in his 10 years as principal at Canyon Valley, Chad Fitzgerald has seen a change in the student demographic.
“When I started, it was 100 percent behavioral,” Fitzgerald said.
Nowadays, 80 to 85 percent of the juniors and seniors at Canyon Valley are enrolled because they are academically behind such as Valdivia, he said.
Valdivia, who doubled up on her classes, took online courses and got work credits, now plans to go to Chandler-Gilbert Community College and then to Northern Arizona University or Arizona State University to study nursing.
“I can’t believe I came here with seven credits,” she says now.
She recalled Fitzgerald gave her two options when she showed up to interview with him for a spot on the campus – get a GED or be a super senior, taking extra years to graduate.
But she was determined to be the first in her family to earn a high school degree and she wanted to graduate on time. Fitzgerald mapped out what Valdivia needed to do to accomplish that and told her he thought she could do it.
She called her experience at Canyon Valley “amazing.”
“It’s giving me a chance that no other school would be giving me,” she said. “I am graduating on time, I’m super grateful for the school.”
The second largest group of students at the campus is those who come voluntarily for the flexible academic schedule.
“They’re the biggest growth in the last few years,” Fitzgerald said. “They might come here because they work full time help paying bills or they’re out on their own. A lot of kids go to work from here and work until 8 p.m.”
Unlike a full-day schedule at a traditional school where students take six classes, each lasting 55 minutes, Canyon Valley’s half-day schedules allows students to attend three classes at a time, each lasting one hour and 20 minutes – 45 minutes is set aside for instruction and the remainder of class is for doing homework.
Classes are in nine-week blocks.
Class size is also capped at 1 teacher to 25 students compared with the 1-to-27 in a traditional classroom, according to Fitzgerald. Math classes are capped at 20 students because most students struggle with the subject, he said.
Two new things Fitzgerald implemented this school year included requiring students to turn in their cellphones before the start of each class. They are given their cellphones back at the warning bell, which rings five minutes before end of class.
Gilbert Public Schools’ policy prohibits student from using cellphones in class.
Fitzgerald also instituted a responsibility policy. Teachers took a one-day training to learn how to deal with student behavior in a different way.
Instead of removing a student from the classroom, the teacher will talk it out with the student first.
“The goal is to get kids to take ownership of the process,” Fitzgerald said.
Students who take responsibility for their action are allowed back into the classroom.
Between the two measures, there’s been a 40 percent drop in suspensions and referrals, Fitzgerald said. He is also noticing students’ grades are trending upward.
The third group, at about 10 percent of the student population, is here because of behavioral issues, Fitzgerald said.
And, the smallest student group is juniors who come to Canyon Valley for its accelerated schedule so they can graduate early like Remington Frost, 17.
Frost was involved in a car accident in the middle of her freshman year at Gilbert High School. Her resulting back injury and chronic migraines made sitting through school for eight hours impossible, she said.
She began her sophomore year at Canyon Valley and soon went from the half-day schedule to the full day, which allowed her to finish her schooling in December. The junior will graduate in May.
“High school is not my thing,” Frost explained. “I’m ready to start my life and move on.”
Frost, an only child, said her mom died from cancer when she was 13.
“My mom was sick,” she said. “I had to grow up. I had a childhood but at 11 I had to focus around her, taking care of my mom. I had no time to be a kid.”
Frost, who is living with her grandmother, is preparing to attend Central Arizona College’s Maricopa campus in July, where she plans to earn an associate’s degree in agriculture.
Depending on her grandmother’s health, she wanted to go on to Florida Institute of Technology for its marine biology program.
“I want to do whale and shark research, a dream since the 6th grade,” she said.
Under Fitzgerald’s leadership, student headcount also has grown, from 80 when he first arrived to the 365 now – 10 percent freshman, 20 percent sophomore, 30 percent junior and 40 percent senior.
There were 700 students registered for class at the beginning of the school year but because the population is so transient, only about half remained, according to Fitzgerald.
Also, some students who come to Canyon Valley stay long enough to get the credits they need and then return to a traditional campus.
While enrolled, students can still participate in their home-school activities such as sports and prom, which are not available at Canyon Valley.
Fitzgerald anticipated the student body to increase to 400 for the next school year.
“Kids talk to other kids in the district,” said Fitzgerald, who attributed the growth to word of mouth. “I’m out of room right now.”
He said the district may relocate Canyon Valley in a year or two to a larger campus. When that happens, he wanted to add another physical education class and offer more electives like a foreign language for students who come and want to stay at Canyon Valley.
It’s not just the school’s offerings but Fitzgerald’s leadership that is attracting students, who call him “Fitz.”
He meets with every single student and their parents and knows their stories. He said he knows 95 percent of the students by their first names.
Frost said she never felt at home at Gilbert High but at Canyon Valley “it’s like a family bond here,” she said.
She was able to form relationships with teachers and staff, something she said she would not have been able to do at her former high school due to the large number of students there.
District Superintendent Shane McCord recently attributed what he called countless success stories that happen every day at Canyon Valley to Fitzgerald and his staff.
“He cares so much for every one of those kids,” McCord said. “He gets real with them. He’s their last hope to get a quality education.”
Fitzgerald said the reason he chose to come to Canyon Valley, which has a more challenging student population, is simple, “I was one of them.”
A career in education wasn’t on Fitzgerald’s radar growing up in Tempe despite his father being a long-time principal at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe and his mom a Mesa High School teacher.
“School was not a priority for me at all, which is a big issue for kids here,” said Fitzgerald. “I was the class clown.”
But the death of someone close to him when he was 22 made him take stock of his life.
He wanted to go to college but he had no idea what to study. A number of assessments he took in college all pointed him toward education. He was hired by Gilbert Public Schools in 2000.
Fitzgerald has no plans of moving on anytime soon.
Seeing his students grow and matriculate is fulfilling for him, said Fitzgerald, who hugs each kid who crosses the stage at graduation. In May, he’s looking to graduate 120 students.
“Being very involved with my kids keeps me here,” Fitzgerald said. “I think I have a bigger impact here.”