Tuesday, March 17, 2009 | Magnet schools in San Diego Unified have long depended on buses to deliver students from across the city, populating the themed schools with a diverse array of kids. But a new plan to end busing to magnets could steer families away from the schools and undercut the whole idea of magnets.

San Diego Unified plans to halt the school buses that deliver children to magnet schools to save $10.5 million, a sizable fraction of its estimated $147 million shortfall. Busing for other purposes, such as special education, will continue. The plan, worked out hastily when the San Diego Unified deficit unexpectedly doubled last week, raises legal questions and practical worries for parents, teachers and principals across the school district.

Magnet supporters say the savings may be smaller than originally estimated because many of the magnet students who are bused could still be bused under other programs. They fear that cutting busing could have sweeping and unanticipated effects, from pushing students back into already bursting schools to hindering efforts to desegregate kids. And it is unclear whether federal money for magnets is imperiled by the move.

“Busing for magnets really does help level the playing field,” said Julian Betts, a professor of economics at the University of California San Diego who has studied magnets and other choice programs in schools. “It means that children from poorer families have a ready way to get across town to a really appealing school. I would worry that magnet attendance would not only fall, but that it would be the less affluent students who would no longer be able to attend.”

Magnet schools draw students from across the school district, luring families with unique programs and themes such as Suzuki violin, microsociety, or the arts. Some pull all of their students in through a lottery and would be hit hardest by ending busing; others draw most of their students from the surrounding neighborhood and offer only their extra spots to outsiders.

They are meant to get kids excited about learning through special programs and diversify schools along racial and economic lines by bringing students from scattered neighborhoods that remain racially segregated — a goal they have not always met. Magnets have also been used to bring in students from outside the school district and to draw kids back into small elementary schools where enrollment is low, such as tiny Barnard Elementary in Point Loma, which has tried to avoid closure by attracting families from as far as Mira Mesa with its unique Mandarin Chinese program.

“People are showing tremendous interest in coming to our school,” said Barnard Principal Edward Park, who estimates that enrollment will grow by more than 34 percent next year because of the program. “But by eliminating transportation, we are eliminating one of the reasons that they would want to come.”

Yanking the buses means that families can still enroll their children at a faraway magnet school, but will have to get them there themselves. More than 7,000 out of the roughly 18,000 students in magnet programs in San Diego Unified are currently bused to their schools. While some parents may take the idea in stride, planning carpools or mapping out public bus routes to get their kids to school, others may be deterred from choosing magnets.

The idea is daunting for principals such as Mitzi Lizarraga, who oversees the School of the Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet in the southeastern corner of the school district. She estimates that more than 80 percent of her students are bused to school, some from as far away as Tierrasanta and Del Cerro.

“I don’t think that many of our parents will have the time to drive 30 or 40 miles twice a day to pick up their students,” Lizarraga said.

Though San Diego Unified had raised the possibility of axing magnets entirely to save nearly $11.6 million, trimming the buses was not listed as a possibility until last Tuesday night, when it surfaced as part of a plan to cut roughly $100 million from the budget. It wasn’t raised at another budget meeting just five hours earlier.

“It was a shock to everybody,” said Marian Phelps, principal of Zamorano Elementary, an arts magnet that has its own ceramic kiln, art studios and a darkroom.

Magnet principals are meeting Wednesday to discuss the possible impacts of cutting busing. Staffers are also assembling a report on the issue for Superintendent Terry Grier. Hundreds of students and parents have signed petitions or sent e-mails to the school board protesting the decision.

Directors of the magnet programs say the decision could have numerous side effects. If parents decide to forgo magnets when the buses disappear, they could spur a domino effect that pushes students back into other schools, shuffling students across the school district. That could actually help boost enrollment in schools that have lost students to magnets.

But an influx of students could also be a burden for many neighborhood schools. Lincoln High, for instance, is already full and cannot bring in several hundred magnet students who would otherwise go to the school, said Sandi Robles, who oversees magnets and other district programs that allow parents to choose a school. Bringing in portable classrooms costs money and the deadline has passed for parents to choose other schools through integration busing, magnets, and a No Child Left Behind provision that allow students to leave schools that repeatedly miss testing goals.

“You’re condemning students to their neighborhood school,” said Bey-Ling Sha, who leads the Parent Teacher Association at the Language Academy, a magnet school that offers immersion programs in Spanish and French. She added, “Their options have been taken away because of the timing of the decision.”

Magnet leaders also caution that cutting busing may not save as much money as hoped. More than half of the students bused to magnet schools would still qualify for busing under the No Child Left Behind provision and other programs, said Rich Cansdale, chief school innovation and choice officer. That means that many students may still ride buses to magnet schools, even if magnet transportation is eliminated.

And if there are enough students to keep running a bus route, it makes little difference if the bus is completely full or carries half as many students. The costs are the same.

Phelps, for instance, estimates that only 100 of the more than 1,200 students at Zamorano ride the bus to attend the arts magnet. But roughly half of them could still qualify for busing under other programs such as special education. Budget staffers could not be reached to explain whether those factors were incorporated into the estimated savings.

“These buses are going to be rolling in spite of eliminating magnet transportation,” Cansdale said. He added, “It’s my understanding that this decision was made quickly and without really digging into all of the ramifications.”

One of those ramifications is how it fits into the desegregation program. Magnet busing is one way that San Diego Unified integrates its schools under a court order made in 1977 that also spurred the creation of a program that pulls students north to mostly white neighborhoods from largely black and Latino neighborhoods in the south. Magnets, which were intentionally concentrated in black and Latino areas, were originally meant to do the reverse, drawing students from north to south. But their success in integrating schools has been mixed. Some magnets draw only a small fraction of their students from afar.

“There haven’t been loads of students busing into southeast San Diego,” said Wendell Bass, principal of a school for students who are suspended. He once oversaw Lincoln High as a magnet school and was sorry to hear that magnet busing could be cut. “But if your goal is still to try to integrate the schools, you’re moving away from it.”

San Diego Unified staffers say they can eliminate magnet busing without violating the court order because the school district can alter its integration programs as long as the desired result — desegregation — is still occurring. Buses will still roll from south to north under the plan, bringing students as far north as Clairemont and La Jolla High.

“There are other parts of the integration program and this is just one of them,” said Shelia Jackson, president of the school board. “It’s something we have to put on the table.”

Federal funding is also tied to desegregation. It is unclear whether the change will jeopardize millions in federal funding for magnet schools that was earmarked for reducing “minority group isolation.” Employees at the U.S. Department of Education are trying to figure out whether ending transportation to San Diego Unified magnets could violate the terms of federal grants that provided $3.4 million in school money this year and $3.6 million for next year to six schools. The money is meant to help diversify schools by funding appealing programs that attract families from different areas.

Dean Kern, director of its Office of Parental Options and Information, said the office had never grappled with the question before and would need to determine whether the magnets were still decreasing racial isolation without busing.

“It’s unknown” whether the grant is in jeopardy, Kern said. “We just recently became aware of the decisions in San Diego. We haven’t heard of this happening anywhere else.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

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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