In the wake of parents’ and principals’ complaints, San Diego Unified could change its plans to cancel busing to magnet schools. Critics argued that jettisoning the buses would save less money than originally estimated, could damage schools that bring students from across the city, and would undercut the very idea of magnets.

Keeping magnet busing is part of a long list of new staff recommendations on how to revamp the magnet program. The recommendations came partly from a recent report by Magnet Schools of America, a nonprofit advocacy group hired by San Diego Unified on a $58,000 contract. The report found that most magnets had had only limited success in drawing students from wealthier areas such as La Jolla and Point Loma to City Heights or southeast San Diego.

Integrating the school district is one of the chief goals of magnet schools, which are meant to attract students from ethnically disparate areas of the city with unique themes such as Mandarin Chinese or microsociety. The magnet program is one part of a dual strategy to integrate schools. The overall strategy also includes a busing program that delivers students from the southern areas of the school district, which are largely black and Latino, to schools in predominantly white neighborhoods in the north.

The report also dealt with issues far beyond busing. Magnet Schools of America found that the magnet schools that have succeeded most in diversifying San Diego Unified are “dedicated magnets” where all students choose to attend through the magnet program, unlike other magnets which only offer their empty seats to students outside the immediate neighborhood. One example is the School of Creative and Performing Arts, a dedicated magnet that “has been very successful recruiting applicants from throughout the district” and thus has met diversity goals.

Many other schools, however, attract few outsiders. And at some schools the report found that recruiting efforts are anemic. And others are already full of kids from their neighborhoods.

The report also criticized the school district for replicating the same themes at multiple schools, making them less attractive to students, and for allowing non-magnets to offer similar themes. “This condition is likely to be confusing to the community,” the report concluded.

And it found that funding for magnet schools was chaotic and unexplained. “There is great disparity … and no justification for amounts allotted,” the consultants wrote. Nor is there strong oversight on how magnet dollars are spent, they concluded.

Beyond the bussing recommendations, San Diego Unified staffers are recommending the following: that magnets be funded based on their themes and enrollment; that several magnet schools be phased out and that schools cut $1.6 million in magnet supplies and personnel.

The total savings from the proposed changes totals $3.7 million. The school board will review the ideas Tuesday morning.

EMILY ALPERT

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