After San Diego Unified pressed the small high schools on the San Diego High and Crawford High campuses to find ways to save money and fix an admittedly choppy academic record, the schools pulled together and developed plans to help more students succeed and share teachers’ expertise.

But the plans don’t save much money, which would leave a gap in the planned budget for next school year unless the small schools can improve student attendance to make up the funds. Bill Kowba, the interim superintendent, said improving the small schools, not the bottom line, is their focus. The plans were discussed at a school board workshop today.

“We’re not dictating them to get $300,000,” Kowba said, referring to the initial amount that the schools-within-a-school were expected to cut. “It was a starting point.”

The schools-within-a-school were created in 2003 by dividing up large high schools into smaller, themed schools on the same campus. They were bolstered by funding from the Gates Foundation, which helped cover the added costs of extra principals and clerical staff for each site.

But the money dried up and test scores and other results have been mixed, raising questions about the small high schools’ future.

Faced with slashing $87 million from their budget for next school year, the school board asked the Crawford and San Diego High campuses this spring to figure out how they could save nearly $300,000.

Teachers and principals at the small high schools met over the past few months to hash out a plan. The schools within San Diego High plan to bulk up instruction for English learners and create more consistent discipline policies between the schools. The Crawford schools said they’d market their schools more and make classes more rigorous.

Those plans were scant on staffing cuts or other reductions that would save money, though principals said the reforms would generate more state money by getting students to attend school more. Several principals said their real focus was to improve the schools-within-a-school, not simply to save money. Kowba said even a slight increase in attendance could make up the shortfall.

School board member John de Beck questioned how the San Diego High plan, which stresses sharing resources and teachers and allowing students to take classes in other small schools, was any different than a comprehensive high school. Another trustee, Shelia Jackson, was worried by the cost.

“The elephant in the room is the money that was there for the extra staff has gone away,” Jackson said, adding, “Do we have to have six principals over there?”

And the school board still wants a clearer sense of how the schools will measure whether their reforms work. The board didn’t make a decision today on the small schools’ future, though several praised their plans. Kowba asked both sets of high schools to come back with their goals and how they’d be measured, along with the plans’ exact budget impact.

— EMILY ALPERT

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