Chandler Unified opens a new high school SanTan Sun News this week
Posted by Kevin Reagan
Wednesday is not just the start of the the new school year for Chandler Unified students, but also the opening of the district’s newest high school – ACP High in Gilbert.
It was built for $ 87 million and is the new campus for the former Arizona College Prep, whose students are moving from an old, small campus on Erie Street in Chandler to the new facility on Gilbert and Ocotillo Streets.
Voters approved a $ 291 million bond in 2019 to build the new high school on 73 acres near the Chandler and Gilbert border.
At that time, CUSD was booming and enrollments continued to rise.
At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, none of the district’s high schools had fewer than 2,000 students. Hamilton High in particular is struggling with a growing student population of over 4,000.
Former Superintendent Camille Casteel once said she never expected to build another high school, but grades 9-12 were getting too big.
“We tried to hold back,” said Casteel in 2019. “We think this is the only really viable alternative.”
But when the walls came up for the new campus, the pandemic resulted in a drop in enrollments in Chandler Unified and most other school districts.
Chandler’s average daily membership, a state metric used to measure enrollment for reimbursement, has decreased by nearly 2,000.
Federal pandemic aid has alleviated the district’s financial plight caused by such a large student exodus, but CUSD is still hoping to attract the students it lost during the pandemic.
Families shouldn’t consider ACP as reserved for advanced students, added Headmaster Rob Bickes, as the school’s teaching offering is designed to suit each student.
“We offer the full range of courses,” he said, “from on-level to AP.”
Bickes has been with ACP since the school was founded in 2007 as an extension of Hamilton High.
The school’s first grade consisted of about 80 middle school students taking their courses in a rented classroom at a local church.
Over the years, ACP added more grade levels and the school’s enrollment grew large enough to warrant a move to a larger facility on Erie Street in 2012.
The school has continued to grow in size and reputation over the past decade, with ACP recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for its commitment to academic excellence. Several of the school’s alumni have received awards and grants for developing innovative projects or patenting new inventions.
Every student expects personalized education from ACP, Bickes said, and the new campus gives students more space to pursue their individual passions.
ACP will continue to strive for excellence in all of its students, the principal said, making each student feel like they have a voice in their own education.
For ACP students, the new school offers more classrooms, more sports fields and more space for activities that their colleagues have enjoyed for years.
ACP’s homecoming game no longer needs to be outsourced to another CUSD campus as the new campus offers plenty of space for athletics.
Orchestra and band concerts can now be performed in a 600-seat auditorium instead of relying on the stages of the Chandler Center for the Arts.
“It’s going to be exciting to have everything here on our campus,” said Bickes.
Students will have the opportunity to sign up for new course offerings that ACP couldn’t teach on the Erie campus due to lack of space, Bickes said, while continuing to enjoy all of the after-school activities the school has had for years.
The 290,000-square-foot campus includes a media center for new photography classes, labs for biotechnology classes, a weight room for sports training, and baseball fields that allow ACP to kick off its first baseball season this school year.
The layout of the campus allows for some space on its east side reserved for future developments that ACP might consider.
Bickes said the school staff will continue to seek to sustain the close-knit, connected community that had existed on Erie Street.
“We’re not changing what we’re doing because we want to make sure we continue to build families and have a school community,” said the headmaster.
At the end of the final school year, around 880 were enrolled in the old Erie School. The new campus is expected to welcome 1,200 students when classes begin on July 21st.
Up to 3,000 students could occupy the new campus, but ACP has no current plans for the school to grow that large.
Bickes said the district wants to keep student numbers lower than the five other high schools in Chandler in order to preserve the relationship between ACP students and their teachers.
“You won’t see (ACP) becoming one of the larger high schools in the district,” said Bickes.
Bickes said every student living in the district is invited to attend ACP as state law now requires all districts to maintain an open enrollment policy.
One of the trademarks of ACP is the distinction as a school that no one has to attend. There was no limit to who enrolled in the school.
But the school’s new campus brings some changes. In addition to being an open enrollment school, ACP must accept all students who live within a two square mile boundary near campus.
Integrating the students on the old campus with the new students living within the assigned boundaries was a top priority for staff in the months leading up to the school’s opening.
Bickes said the school organized orientations and matched new students with a mentor who can introduce them to ACP culture and customs.
The idea is to make them feel that they are part of their school, said the headmaster, and to make them feel that ACP is their school too.
ACP is also trying to expand its appeal to a wider range of students and is considering changing the “college” part of the school name.
Bickes said he was considering replacing the “C” with “career / college entrance” as the school wants to prepare students for whatever path they might choose to take after graduation.