Monday, April 14, 2008 | As dawn breaks over Logan Heights, 40 middle school students file, stop by stop, onto the school bus that delivers them to La Jolla. Mexican markets and taquerias flit away beyond the bus windows, gradually replaced by posh boutiques and million-dollar views.

The 40-minute journey is utterly normal for many preteens, their daily routine since kindergarten, when parents pulled them from Logan Heights schools. They chatter about futures studying and playing soccer at La Jolla High like siblings who came before them as the yellow bus rumbles toward Muirlands Middle School.

Since the 1970s, families in the southern neighborhoods of San Diego have chosen to send their children northward via a racial integration program that imports children from mostly black and Latino neighborhoods to largely white areas. Nearly 7,000 San Diego Unified students board buses through the program today, and trade classrooms in Logan Heights for La Jolla, Sherman Heights for Clairemont.

The busing program was created to diversify schools. But parents choose it for a variety of reasons, some entirely unrelated to diversity. Roxana Garcia’s parents sent her northward to Point Loma schools because they feared Logan Heights gangs infecting her elementary school. Years later Garcia also chose Point Loma schools for her two children. Gangs weren’t her main concern; a school that catered to her children was.

“The school is smaller. Their expectations are a bit higher. And I liked how involved the principal was with the teachers,” Garcia said, describing Loma Portal Elementary. At her Logan Heights school, “I didn’t see the same things. And I didn’t believe my daughter received the attention she should have gotten there.”

Thirty years after its inception, the largely south-to-north circuit of buses is alternately revered and resented. Yellow buses are a prized route to opportunity, safety and racial equity for some San Diego families. They’re also a practical necessity that staves off overcrowding in southern schools and boosts enrollment in their northern counterparts. Yet critics argue that busing does little for student achievement, and shifts millions of dollars from south to north. They lament the morning exodus of students, and the demoralizing implication — true or false — that neighborhood schools are inadequate.

“We call it ‘The mind drain,’” said Culbert Williams, a retired counselor who used to work at Lincoln High School in southeast San Diego. “To have kids getting on the bus every day, leaving the community, just accentuates the fact that something’s inherently wrong here, that all the kids are leaving.”

Some families are drawn to the egalitarian promise of busing: Latino, black, white and Asian children learning and playing together. For others, race is incidental to their quest for a better education or gang-free schools. Through busing, those families have avoided neighborhood schools, believing that opportunity lies north of Interstate 8.

“It’s an escape,” said Juan Orozco, a southeast San Diego parent who coordinates the local chapter of the Association of Raza Educators. His daughter attends High Tech High, a charter school, instead of her neighborhood school in southern San Diego. “And unfortunately that system perpetuates a belief in the children that to make it, you’ve got to leave the community.”

San Diego Unified started integrating schools in the 1970s using a two-pronged strategy. Voluntary busing pulled black and Latino children into mostly white schools; magnet programs that draw students district-wide were designed to attract white students to predominantly black and Latino schools. The desegregation effort was spurred by a 1977 court ruling that required San Diego Unified to integrate 23 “minority racially isolated” schools where students were effectively segregated by race.

Decades later, Proposition 209 banned race-based preferences in public education.

Students now enroll in the program based on their neighborhood, not their race. But in San Diego, neighborhood has served as an effective proxy for race, which allows integrative busing to persist. The zip code that comprises North Clairemont, a major receiver of buses, was 77 percent white in 2000; Logan Heights’ zip code, 92113, was 75 percent Latino. Mostly black and Latino areas are matched with white areas.

Busing is largely voluntary, but it’s a practical necessity in San Diego Unified, where the schools aren’t located where the kids are. If every child in southern San Diego attended their neighborhood school, their schools would burst at the seams. Morse High School on Skyline Drive in southeast San Diego seats 2,720 teens, yet roughly 4,000 students live in the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, schools in Clairemont and Mission Bay would suffer for lack of students. Clairemont High School, for instance, pulls 37 percent of its student body from integration busing. Only 900 teens live in the Clairemont area, where the high school enrolls roughly 1,500 students.

Dropping budgets and declining enrollment make it unlikely that the district will build new schools in southern San Diego. Instead, the school district counts on parents choosing to send their children northward, averting a facilities crisis. Many are grateful for the choice. Martha Buitron praises Marston Middle School in Clairemont, which she chose over a Linda Vista middle school for its test scores, tutoring and safe feel.

“It’s been the greatest,” Buitron said. Yet she wishes things were different. “Not even a quarter of a mile away is my local high school and my middle school. I see the scores, and I see a lot of the kids, their demeanor when they come out. It’s disappointing that I have the schools so close to me, and they’re not up to the standard at Marston.”

Up to $40 Million Migrates with Students

Integration and magnet busing makes up 60 percent of school bus ridership in San Diego Unified, which spends $36.6 million annually on transportation. Amid talk of budget shortfalls, parents have eyed buses for cuts. Compared to Long Beach and Los Angeles, two similar California school districts, San Diego buses a higher percentage of its students — roughly 16 percent, compared to 9 percent of students in Los Angeles and 14 percent in Long Beach. Yet the district spends about $800 less per bused student than Los Angeles, and $400 more per student than Long Beach.

Eliminating busing could violate the law, said Alex Robinson, director of transportation services. Buses must be provided for thousands of special education students, kids opting out of schools that fail under No Child Left Behind, and under the 1977 integration ruling. What’s more, it solves the facilities issue.

“People say, ‘Just send all the kids back where they came from,’” Robinson said. “You can’t send them back where they came from. There’s not enough room at their resident schools.”

When students move, money moves with them. California allocates funds to individual schools based on their enrollment, so the migration of nearly 7,000 students totals up to $40 million in state funding annually, shifted from south to north.

In addition, schools on the receiving end of integration busing are currently given $200 per child in extra funds — a nearly $1.4 million boon — plus an $80,000 staff credit for every 500 elementary students or 750 secondary students bused for integration. San Diego Unified allocated $3.5 million on integration funding to receiving schools this school year. Some schools use funding for promotional flyers that tout busing; others hire extra staff or tutors. There are no restrictions on the funds.

And because bused students are typically from low-income neighborhoods, they may nudge the percentage of low-income students at an otherwise middle class or affluent school upward. That enables it to receive federal funds for low-income students. University City High, for instance, barely qualifies for those funds, and draws nearly 15 percent of its students from integration.

In San Diego Unified, those dollars don’t need to be targeted specifically for the school’s low-income students. Critics liken it to a “slush fund” for schools. Others counter that a school-wide improvement, such as hiring a counselor who sees all students, still benefits the poorest kids. But suspicion lingers in communities that watch school buses ship children north every morning.

“When they recruit these children to go to their schools, is it sincere, or is it just to get the money these kids bring?” asked Betty Brown, an advocate at the Center for Parent Involvement in Education, a nonprofit headquartered in southeast San Diego.

Magnets, the second prong of San Diego Unified’s integration strategy, have been less successful in pulling students south. The specialized schools draw students from anywhere in the district, and focus their curriculum around a specific subject, such as Mandarin Chinese, engineering or the arts. While the integration program was intended to bring black and Latino students into mostly white schools, magnets were meant to do the reverse.

With a few exceptions, such as the popular School of Creative and Performing Arts, that hasn’t been the case. Districtwide, more students are bused to northern magnets than to their southern counterparts, a net movement of nearly 1,400 students north.

Studies Find Busing Doesn’t Boost Scores

Integration busing has shown little consistent impact on student achievement. San Diego kids who boarded buses to northern schools didn’t score significantly higher on standardized tests than peers who applied for the program, but didn’t get in, researchers at the University of California, San Diego found in 2006. The results echo an internal San Diego Unified study, finished in 2003, that reported mixed results for integrated students, compared to students at their neighborhood schools. Among Latino students, kids who stayed in their home schools performed slightly better on standardized tests than those who boarded buses for integration; black students did moderately better after being bused than in their home schools.

The evidence counters a widespread belief that when San Diego children board northbound school buses, they’re motoring to far better academics.

“If my kid could stay home and go to Johnson Elementary, why would I want to bus my kid across town?” said Wendell Bass, principal of the Attendance Intervention Center, a school district program to quash truancy. “You’re not getting any smarter sitting next to a white kid.”

Bass, a veteran educator, has watched the integration program since the 1970s. As the principal of Lincoln High School prior to its demolition and reconstruction, he grew frustrated fending off the idea that northern schools equaled success for southeast San Diego students. He believes a 2005 study exploded that idea, citing Lincoln High as a disadvantaged school with a surprisingly high promotion rate from year to year.

The research, conducted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, lauded Lincoln for promoting students at an average rate of 85 percent. The same report noted abysmal graduation rates for black and Latino students across San Diego Unified, with roughly half disappearing before graduation day. It did not specify graduation rates for students bused into other schools.

“A school on 49th Street graduates your kids at a high rate — but you’re rushing to send them across town, and they’re dropping out,” Bass said. “Something’s wrong with that picture.”

A bumper crop of attractive schools contradict the myth of an educational wasteland in southern San Diego, trustee Shelia Jackson said. Two local elementary schools, Jackson and Penn, were recently tapped as California Distinguished Schools, and Lincoln High was dramatically renovated with Gates Foundation funds.

Yet “word of mouth” dies hard among parents, said Gloria Cooper, a board member with the San Diego Organizing Project and a strong supporter of Lincoln High. Years ago Cooper’s own son heard the rumors about Lincoln as an eighth grader, and pleaded with her to be bused to a northern school. Cooper unhappily agreed.

“The reality is, some of these [southern] schools have a lot to offer,” she said. “That negative talk is what tears us down.”

But statistics and test scores don’t track the intangible benefits of busing. In Point Loma, families asked to maintain busing from elementary through high school, absorbing bused children into the community, said school board member John de Beck. Families apply for the integration program and are assigned a ranking number at random, by which schools select them. Years ago, they had to reapply for middle school and high school; now, they progress automatically to the next school. They’ve melded seamlessly with their peers, de Beck said, citing valedictorians and class presidents who took the school bus to Point Loma High.

“When communities learn to put aside their biases and figure out a way to visualize the American dream of equality, the outcome is far greater than just test scores,” de Beck said.

Clairemont High principal Lenora Smith said the small hassles of busing — figuring out how bused kids can play sports after school, or holding parent events in southern San Diego in the evening, when teachers are tired — are outweighed by the broadened outlooks of integrated students. She’s prodded bused students to take advanced classes, which have been slower to integrate along racial lines.

“It looks like a mini United Nations — these kids working hard, getting something done together,” Smith said. “Race and ethnicity don’t even enter into it.”

Yet diversifying a school hasn’t always translated into that dream. Black and Latino students passed Chloe Gates in the halls of Patrick Henry School, where she graduated in 2002, but rarely enrolled in her advanced classes, she recalled. Her social circles, like her classes, were mostly white. On the opposite side of Interstate 8, Betty Brown complained of discrimination against parents and children who bus to northern schools — being called “those kids” by other parents, and blamed for school problems.

For families seeking the best for their children, it adds up to a complex choice. When the Guyo family emigrated to City Heights from Ethiopia, the four children struggled to adjust to peer pressure and gangs. Fatuma Guyo, a Crawford High School graduate, urged her mother to enroll her younger brother, Ahmed, at Mission Bay High instead. Gang temptations were fewer there, and more sports, clubs and languages were offered, Guyo said.

“When I came to this country I was 14 years old. I knew what I was putting myself into. But he’s young. He could play around or do something bad or stupid, like joining gangs,” Guyo said. “And the [school] performance was really low. We cannot handle that anymore. That’s why we chose him to take him far away, so the peer pressure would be low.”

It didn’t work. Ahmed woke at 5 a.m. every morning to attend Mission Bay, but his behavior problems persisted. His mother, Safo, speaks Oromo and doesn’t drive, and couldn’t visit him easily in Mission Bay. When he trudged home late from school, she wondered whether the bus was actually late, or whether he lingered with a bad crowd. Ultimately, the family decided that neither Mission Bay nor Crawford would work. They enrolled Ahmed in a charter school. Guyo wishes there were another choice: a safer, high-achieving school close to home.

“So many parents are really lost. They don’t know — take their students far from the community? If they take [them] far, they cannot travel to them and they don’t know how their students are doing,” Guyo said. “If we had a good school in this area, we would not have hard times.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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