Wednesday not only marks the beginning of the new school year for Chandler Unified students but also ushers in the opening of the district’s newest high school – ACP-High in Gilbert.
Built at a cost of $87 million, it’s the new campus for formerly title 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 roads.
Voters in 2019 approved a $291-million bond issue to build the high school on a 73-acre parcel near the Chandler-Gilbert border.
At the time, CUSD was booming and enrollment continued growing.
At the end of the 2019-20 school year, none of the district’s high schools had fewer than 2,000 students. Hamilton High in particular has had to contend with a burgeoning population of over 4,000 students.
Former Superintendent Camille Casteel at one point said she had never expected to build another high school, but grade 9-12 class sizes were becoming too big.
“We tried to hold off,” Casteel said in 2019. “We think this is the only real viable alternative.”
But as the walls started going up for the new campus, the pandemic started triggering enrollment declines in Chandler Unified and most other school districts.
Chandler’s average daily membership, a state metric used to measure enrollment for reimbursement, has dropped by nearly 2,000.
Federal pandemic relief funding has eased the district’s financial distress caused by such a large exodus of students, but CUSD is still hoping to attract the pupils it lost during the pandemic.
Families shouldn’t be concerned about ACP being a campus reserved for advanced students, Principal Rob Bickes said, since the school’s class offerings are designed to accommodate every student.
“We offer the full gamut of courses,” he said, “from on-level to AP.”
Bickes has been with ACP ever since the school originated in 2007 as an extension of Hamilton High.
The school’s first class consisted of about 80 middle school students who took their courses out of a rented classroom at a local church.
As the years went by, ACP added more grade levels and the school’s enrollment got big enough to warrant relocating it to a bigger facility on Erie Street in 2012.
The school’s size and reputation has continued to grow over the last decade with ACP earning honors from the U.S. Department of Education for its commitment to academic excellence. Several of the school’s alumni have earned awards and scholarships for devising innovative projects or patenting new inventions.
Each student expects to have a personalized education when they come to ACP, Bickes said, and the new campus provides more space for students to pursue their individual passions.
ACP will continue to strive for excellence from all of its students, the principal said, and make each pupil feel like they have a voice in their own education.
For ACP students, the new school will offer more classrooms, more sports fields and more space to host the types of activities their counterparts have enjoyed for years.
ACP‘s homecoming game will no longer have to be outsourced to another CUSD campus, since the new campus has plenty of room for athletics.
Orchestra and band concerts can now be performed in a 600-seat auditorium, instead of relying on the Chandler Center for the Arts stages.
“It’s going to be exciting to have everything here on our campus,” said Bickes.
Students will have the opportunity to enroll in new course offerings ACP could not teach at the Erie campus because of space limitations, Bickes said, while continuing to enjoy all the same extracurricular activities the school has had for years.
The 290,000-square-foot campus includes a media center for new photography classes, lab space for biotechnology courses, a weight room for athletic training, and baseball fields that will allow ACP to start its first season of baseball this school year.
The layout of the campus comes with some space reserved on its east side for any future development ACP may wish to consider.
Bickes said the school’s staff will still attempt to maintain the close-knit, connected community that had existed on Erie Street.
“We’re not changing what we do because we want to make sure we continue building a family and having a school community,” the principal said.
Enrollment at the old Erie school was about 880 by the end of the last school year. The new campus is expected to welcome 1,200 pupils when classes begin on July 21.
Up to 3,000 students could occupy the new campus, but ACP currently doesn’t intend for the school to get that big.
Bickes said the district wants to keep enrollment lower than Chandler’s five other high schools in order to preserve the rapport ACP students enjoy with their teachers.
“You’re not going to see (ACP) become one of the larger-type high schools within the district,” Bickes said.
Bickes said any student living in the district is invited to attend ACP because state law now requires all districts to maintain an open enrollment policy.
One of ACP’s hallmarks has been its distinction as being a school that nobody is forced to attend. There were no boundaries dictating who enrolled at the school.
But the school’s new campus comes with some changes to that. In addition to being an open-enrollment school, ACP must accept any students living in a two-square-mile boundary positioned near the campus.
The integration of students from the old campus with the new ones living within the assigned boundaries has been one the highest priorities for staff in the months leading up to the school’s grand opening.
Bickes said the school has been organizing orientation events and pairing new students with a mentor who can familiarize them with ACP culture and customs.
The idea is to get them to feel invested in their school, the principal said, and make them feel like ACP is their school too.
ACP is additionally attempting to broaden its appeal to a wider cross-section of students and considering changing the “college” portion of the school’s name.
Bickes said he’s considering replacing the “C” with “career/college readiness” because the school wants to prepare students for whatever path they want to pursue after graduation.