Seventeen-year-old Jaemeeliah Little and her brother Malachi Johnson climbed onto the school bus, glad to be out of the December cold before 7 a.m. As the bus roared away from their old elementary school in North Park, Jaemeeliah was soon deep in gossip about prom, Malachi absorbed in music on his ear buds. Their teenage knees reached the back of the seats, seemingly built for smaller children.

Every day Jaemeeliah and her brother rouse themselves at 5:15 a.m. to catch this crowded bus. Drumming in the Dixie Jazz band brings Malachi here; Jaemeeliah is the cheerleading captain.

Both are following their parents’ hope that Mission Bay High School has something better for them than their local school. And the vast majority of their classmates wake up early to do the same. Mission Bay High sits at the gateway to Pacific Beach, but it is really an imported high school. Almost 80 percent of its students come from somewhere else, ferried in by 32 different buses to the Grand Avenue campus.

While busing was dreamed up to bring black, white, Latino and Asian kids side by side, it has ultimately become the lifeblood of Mission Bay High, the only reason it survives. As families have dwindled in Pacific Beach or chosen other schools, the school has courted students from elsewhere to stay open.

“We take students and we move them out of a neighborhood and move them here,” said Gretchen Rhoads, one of its vice principals. “But I don’t necessarily see that as integration.”

The unusual school is one window into the evolution of busing in San Diego Unified, a longtime fact of school life that is still hotly debated between those who believe busing is a golden ticket to opportunity and those who bemoan a brain drain from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

And it is the starkest example of why the quest for more neighborhood schooling is so complicated in the massive district. While the school board has touted a good local school for every child, Mission Bay depends on kids choosing not to stay home, to fill a school that would otherwise be almost empty.

While the beach burg known for surfers and college kids is largely white and better off than average, more than half of Mission Bay students are Latino and nearly three out of every four are poor enough to get free meals. They come from Barrio Logan and City Heights, Lincoln Park and Grant Hill.

“We really are an inner-city school at the beach,” parent Cori Meara said.

Like many inner-city schools, conquering the state tests has long been a struggle here. Yet families have kept choosing Mission Bay High. Educators hope they were lured by the rigorous International Baccalaureate program and marine science classes, the magnet programs that allow them to draw kids across the city.

But for many families, the magnet is an afterthought. Even the school principal readily says that what brings many students to Mission Bay is a chance to get out of their local school.

“My dad said he didn’t want me to do drugs or anything,” said Creta Camargo, a sophomore who takes the bus from Chicano Park. “There’s so much violence there.”

Wanda Johnson worried that San Diego High was unsafe, so she shopped around for Jaemeeliah and Malachi. Fellow churchgoers told her good things about Mission Bay and she liked its closed campus. Other families have sent children to Mission Bay for so long, the kids don’t know why anymore.

Busing has become a way of life. When it rains in the morning, teachers wait to start their lessons, knowing buses will likely be late. When kids need a free dental clinic or help with the rent, counselors page through binders the school created that list assistance agencies all over the city. Mission Bay has a handful of buses for kids who stay late, but teachers don’t count on keeping kids after school.

Principal Fred Hilgers says the hardest part is getting parents who live across the city to come all the way to Mission Bay for school events or conferences. Hilgers has held meetings in Sherman Heights and provided buses to spur parents to come. Even the school police officer worries that when he ejects a teen from school for acting up, he has to figure out how to get them home.

“School spirit is kind of lacking,” said June Andrews, the social studies teacher, who frets about low turnout at school dances and events. “They don’t have roots in the community.”

It devils student body president Thega Berhe, who has made it her personal mission to ramp up school spirit. She thinks it might be the cliques, sometimes grounded in neighborhoods, sometimes not, that make people apathetic. Or maybe it’s just how hard it is to get back to school for a talent show.

Yet parents, students and teachers alike say the frustrations are worth it for diversity. If you were creating a school, said special education teacher Sarah Almada, you’d want it to look like Mission Bay.

“It isn’t the stereotype people would expect,” said head counselor Vichara Labe. “It’s something better.”

The question that San Diego Unified has long grappled with, however, is whether it is worth the price and the time — or even makes sense — to import so many children from one neighborhood to another. The problem is not really busing, said school board member John Lee Evans, but that families are using busing as an escape because they believe, right or wrong, that their local schools are inadequate.

Once a privilege for the wealthy and mobile, today almost any parent has a chance to pick a school. They can choose a magnet school with a special theme. They can opt for a school across town through integration busing. If their school is failing under No Child Left Behind, they can land a ticket to a school with better scores. Schools compete for kids across the city, marketing themselves to win families over.

“Busing means you can go to the school you want,” Malachi, 15, said simply.

The flurry of buses has helped make schools more integrated. But despite its enduring appeal, busing doesn’t guarantee a better education.

Children who choose to be bused in San Diego do not do much better academically than children who sought busing but didn’t get it, a Public Policy Institute of California study found.

Big gaps between how white, black, Asian and Latino kids perform persist at schools like Mission Bay.

Shipping kids across town is also costly. San Diego Unified plans to spend more than $39 million out of its $1.1 billion operating budget on busing this year, more than it budgeted on its counseling department.

Education activists and some parents in poorer neighborhoods complain that busing has propped up coastal schools like Mission Bay while draining ambitious students and involved parents from schools in disadvantaged areas.

But cutting back on busing now seems both politically and logistically impossible.

Stopping the school buses would send some kids streaming back to schools with too little room to hold them, and choke off school enrollment in neighborhoods with too few teens of their own. End busing and you end Mission Bay High — and the hopes that parents peg to it.

“Some people believe if we all stayed in our schools, they’d be forced to fix them,” said Theresa Quiroz, a parent and community activist in City Heights whose children are bused elsewhere. “And to a certain extent I agree with them. But it’s difficult for a parent to not do what’s best for their child.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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