Story and photos by Melody Birkett

A long fight over whether to keep Gilbert Junior High School open finally came to an end on May 30 when the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board voted 5-0 to close the school, citing declining enrollment.

The campus, in the northwest part of the town, is to be used for Gilbert Classical Academy, which is in temporary digs on Greenfield Road. Meanwhile, Gilbert Junior High students are to attend Mesquite Junior High School.

In the 2017-18 school year, projected enrollment at Gilbert Junior High is 400, even though the school has space to enroll 1,200, according to GPS.

If it remained open, the challenge would be “how do we get those kids art, music, athletics,” said Irene Mahoney-Paige, GPS spokeswoman. “We can’t afford it. We can’t afford for that small number to give them a comprehensive junior high school.”

While Gilbert Junior High students are to attend Mesquite for the 2017-18 school year, teachers and administrative staff will also transfer with them, unless they choose to go to another school.

Mesquite is anticipated to have well over 600 students in the next school year. Even with Gilbert Junior High’s 400 students, Mesquite will not be overcrowded and still will have room to grow, according to Mahoney-Paige.

The Gilbert Governing Board also voted 5-0 to move Gilbert Classical Academy into the Gilbert Junior High building for this upcoming school year.

The board agreed Gilbert Junior High is a better-size campus for the academy, which has a current enrollment of 579.

“When the school was established, where they are (55 N. Greenfield Road), it was meant to be a temporary location, and it has been 10 years,” Mahoney-Paige said.

GCA teaches 7th-12th grade honors classes. “So the kids are taking a more rigorous, all-honors curriculum” Mahoney-Paige added. “They teach the Socratic method. So it’s a little bit of a different kind of school. There’s no test to get in, but there has been a lottery. Just because of space, they haven’t been able to take everybody because they can’t fit them.”

Discussion to close Gilbert Junior High started in September 2012 with the board voting to close the school by the 2014/2015 school year. That decision was overturned along with others that followed in subsequent years.

Discussions have also been ongoing about suitable accommodation for GCA. Before the final vote, GPS Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto noted how the board voted last year to move GCA to Mesquite Junior High as a shared campus. Later in the year, the plan was scrapped.

Many parents of GCA students said Mesquite was their first choice since the school has an auditorium. Gilbert Junior High does not.

Parent Deandra Tupa supports the closing of Gilbert Junior High. “It’ll really benefit the whole west side. Gilbert Junior High has had a hard time having enough kids for honors classes, clubs, sports, music. And we have enough room over at Mesquite Jr. High,” she said.

Tupa’s kids are in seventh and ninth grades and are excited about more students going to Mesquite, she said.

“We will have more kids in band. We will have more opportunities at Mesquite,” Tupa said. “GCA needs a facility; it’s extremely run-down.”

J.J. Pudenz has an eighth-grade daughter who attends GCA. He also supports the board’s decision. “The school is outperforming everybody else – it’s nationally ranked – yet they’re in these little mobile containers,” he said.

They have a “cafegymautorium,” Pudenz said, referring to the cafeteria, gym and auditorium accommodated in one building.

“I want Gilbert Classical Academy to expand its enrollment, and the only way it can expand its enrollment is if they have a larger campus,” Pudenz added.

Luke Fernando is a senior at GCA. “It’s definitely going to increase our potential. As far as growth for the school, I know we certainly can grow a lot more. As far as the actual students, we can grow academically with better facilities with just a greater range of possibilities with a better campus. So that’s good. It’s positive change,” he said.

Not all parents and community members are happy.

“I’m totally heartbroken and disappointed in the school board for making a decision that was essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Gilbert district,” said Lisa Nicita, who lives two houses down from the school and is a mom of three whose oldest was planning to attend Gilbert Junior High in 2018.

“Administration choked out that school, starved it for attention and programs and then claimed low enrollment – when in fact, their cloaked motives and years of uncertainty about the future of that school prompted families to make other choices and, in turn, negatively affect enrollment,” Nicita added.

Bridgette Jansen has a daughter who attends GCA. While she admits GCA students need a better campus, “I think it was handled poorly here as far as waiting until the last minute. All of these kids are being misplaced,” she said.

With the district’s schools starting on August 2, there are just two months to move and figure out logistics, such as transportation.

“By closing GJHS, they didn’t just rob our family of our plan for junior high, but they robbed our community of our school in favor of busing in and driving in kids from other neighborhoods to attend a specialty school,” Nicita added. “It’s not right.”

For one GCA student, it’s not the perfect solution, but a step up.

“It provides an opportunity to not worry that our campus is going to fall apart,” sophomore Nicolette Beaulieu said. “Although I am grateful, I still don’t think it’s enough. We’re a high school and a junior high combined and we will be operating off a junior high campus and our sports will still have to be bused off elsewhere but I’m grateful for the small upgrade we have.”