A desirable magnet school in Chollas View will save 70 percent of its spots for middle schoolers in the Lincoln High area, making it more like a local school, the San Diego Unified school board decided last night.

Doing so creates a new neighborhood school to feed Lincoln High School in southeastern San Diego, something local activists pushed for so that more students could go from elementary to middle to high school in their own neighborhood. But it also reduces the flow of students from other neighborhoods to Millennial Tech Middle, a change that parents bitterly protested and teachers said could dilute its science focus.

Great magnet schools that draw kids from all over the school district are important, said school board President Richard Barrera. “I would say it’s more important that we first make sure that there’s the opportunity for students to go to great schools in the neighborhood in which they live,” he concluded.

The debate over whether to guarantee more room at Millennial Tech for local kids was an extremely touchy one. Neighborhood activists said it is unjust that middle schoolers in the Lincoln area have no neighborhood middle school run by the district, and that Millennial Tech could fill that gap. Parents at Johnson Elementary, an elementary school with a science focus, said setting aside space for local kids would ensure they had a place to continue their science studies.

Lincoln, in turn, has complained that because there is no local middle school run by the school district, kids scatter to other schools and there is no clear path to Lincoln, starving it of students. It also makes it hard for Lincoln to team up with its feeder schools to figure out what kids need at each stage.

It is a sore spot in a largely black and Latino community that has often felt underserved by the school system. “Our children should not have to fight for a seat at the table of quality education,” said Johnson Elementary parent Pamela Moorehead. “That seat should be guaranteed to us.”

Parents at the existing magnet argued that students from all over the city should get the same chance at the school. They said that setting most of the spots aside for local students would undercut its focus on science, since kids might just go there because it was convenient. Many students and parents held up signs that argued for 40 percent of the spots to go to Lincoln area students, not 70 percent.

“Forcing students to go into a [science, technology, engineering and math] magnet … is in my professional opinion, counterproductive,” said Willie Bogan, a teacher at the school.

One elementary school parent even argued that allotting more spaces for local students would invite in gangs, drugs and prostitution from the neighborhood, provoking angry shouts and gasps from the crowd. Another said that teachers would leave if it became a local school. The packed auditorium grew tense as parents argued publicly over which students should get spots in the school.

To provide more neighborhood middle school options feeding into Lincoln, the school board also voted to change Knox, a nearby K-8 school, into a middle school, and to increase the enrollment at Millennial Tech.

Expanding Millennial Tech to accommodate more students is estimated to cost $4 million in funds from Proposition S, its construction and renovation bond. School officials say the changes will not kick in until 2013 when the new facility is built.

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

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

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