After nine years of offering an alternative to students who just did not fit in the traditional school setting, the Payson Education Center (PEC) will close its doors.
“It is with a heavy heart that I advise you that Payson Education Center will close its doors at the end of this school year,” wrote Gila County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell in a letter on the county website. “A number of factors have led to this decision, most notably a significant decrease in enrollment and subsequent reduction in funding; increased operating costs have worsened the situation.”
O’Dell started the accommodation school in 2005, along with a campus in Globe. The campus in Globe will remain open.
“I established Payson Education Center as part of the Gila County Regional (Accommodation) School District during the 2005-06 school year with just a handful of students and a vision of providing an educational option and opportunity for students who had not been as successful as they might be in other settings,” said O’Dell in her letter.
Such specialized schools have a challenge with funding.
“I cannot go to the voters for property taxes or to pass an override,” said O’Dell. “All of our funding comes from student enrollment.”
PEC’s model stressed intensive staff interaction with students. The staff-to-student ratio was much smaller than at Payson High School to provide more personalized attention.
At a recent alumni event, former student Jessica Romo said she would have never graduated high school or had the courage to finish a college degree in biology needed to pursue her dream of working for Game and Fish.
Another reason O’Dell closed the school had to do with Principal Peggy Miles leaving the Rim Country to move to the Valley.
Miles, an enthusiastic and supportive principal, grew the program and hired great teachers such as former Payson High School wrestling coach and social studies teacher Dennis Pirch and Rim Country Middle School science teacher Barbara Quinlan.
The students loved Miles. She said they often returned to the school after graduating to keep her appraised on their progress in life.
“The loss of Peggy Miles certainly was a factor in closing the school,” said O’Dell.
O’Dell did say that she has not given up on a miracle intervening to open the school up again.
However, now that the Payson Unified School District has closed the Payson Virtual Academy and PEC will close, students will have few options if they can’t attend the Payson school district or need to round up enough credits to earn a degree.
For the current students at PEC, O’Dell said the staff is frantically working to get them through as many credits as possible.
She hopes to have an alternative for their education by the fall.
“I never thought I would graduate ... I sat in that chair and worked on math for hours with Mr. Wade ... (he) would yell at me like I was his child,” said Amanda Petrie at a recent alumni celebration night at PEC.
Alumni after alumni rose to talk about how PEC showed them they could finish high school, continue their education and reach their dreams.
At the center of the celebration, Principal Peggy Miles knew every student and remembered each of their quirks.
“I think you realized you were an artist,” she said to one student.
“Yes, next year I’ll be in Oregon studying animation,” he said to applause from everyone in the room.
“This cracks me up to hear some of these guys, they were so mad at me (when they were here),” she said. “But that’s what you needed at the time — you needed to be pushed and understood.”
O’Dell, in her remarks opening the evening, used a metaphor to explain that understanding philosophy.
“I held up a dollar bill and asked everyone to tell me what it was,” she said.
After everyone identified it as money, O’Dell said she folded it in half and asked if it was still a dollar.
When everyone said yes, she folded it again and asked the same question and got the same answer. She even went so far as to crumple up the dollar and crush it with her foot.
“Did this ever stop being a dollar?” she said she asked everyone.
They all agreed it was always a dollar no matter what was done to it.
“You are the same as this dollar,” she said, “You are always you, no matter what happens to you.”