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The reason that Mission Bay High is able to stay viable and bring in so many students from other neighborhoods is that it is a magnet school, with a unique theme that lets it draw from across the city.

It offers International Baccalaureate classes, a tough program aimed at creating “active, compassionate and lifelong learners.” It also offers marine science classes, though International Baccalaureate has been its big push. But as it turns out, many kids never take the magnet classes at all.

As our article about Mission Bay noted, the magnet is an afterthought for many families. Many choose Mission Bay to get out of neighborhood schools they believe to be inadequate.

The result is that the very reason that Mission Bay High can bring in students from other neighborhoods is a program that many students don’t use. Slightly less than half of Mission Bay juniors and seniors take at least one International Baccalaureate class, said Principal Fred Hilgers. Kids who do well in a single International Baccalaureate course and exam can get a certificate; school district officials said 61 out of roughly 1,600 students at Mission Bay did that last year.

And students who complete six International Baccalaureate classes, take and pass the exams, complete a 4,000 word essay and meet other requirements can get an International Baccalaureate diploma. But that is really rare at Mission Bay High. Just four students got the special diplomas last year.

What’s more, the classes don’t totally mirror the makeup of Mission Bay High. They have a slightly higher share of white students and smaller percentages of Latino and black students than the school as a whole. I also asked what percentage of the students in IB classes were bused in; Hilgers didn’t know.

That was one reason that Bill Ponder, who coordinates the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs at Mission Bay High, calls it “a school within a school.” He added in an email:

Another part of the story is the fact that parents who send their children to MBHS aren’t getting all of the information about what it takes for students to excel at [Advanced Placement] or IB. Some parents are pro-active and ask and come and seek out information. Most rely on counselors and teachers and a few other parents to pass along information. Busing is still a major issue in my mind because it creates the idea that once I send my child out of southeast or downtown, everything will be fine.

One scholar says the International Baccalaureate program was designed mainly to bring Pacific Beach students back to Mission Bay High, not to lure in more kids from elsewhere. Susan Yonezawa, a researcher at the University of California San Diego who worked with the school district on community engagement years ago, said there was an unspoken fear of “white flight” from the school.

“All of this was an attempt to recapture the few community students and stem the tide of them opting for University City,” Yonezawa said. “They never said it, but there was a fear of getting pigeonholed, that parents would walk on campus and say, ‘I don’t know if this is the right place for my child.’”

Now Mission Bay High is trying to end the “school within a school” by bringing more students into its special classes and helping them succeed. It got $1 million this year, the first chunk of a three-year grant, to try to expand participation and success in International Baccalaureate classes. Its goal is ultimately to include ninth and tenth grades in the program and to get more students enrolled — and to market it as a reason for more students from all over the city to choose the Pacific Beach school.

“It’s a prestigious program,” said Tracy Borg, who teaches International Baccalaureate psychology and has been at Mission Bay for a decade. “That’s worth getting up early for.”

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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