Over the past few months, I’ve written about how San Diego Unified is edging towards a dramatic change: promoting neighborhood schools over school choice and the cross-town buses that have defined the massive school district for decades.

Today at a morning school board meeting, San Diego Unified started talking about one of the most daunting questions it faces in its quest for neighborhood schooling: How will it improve neighborhood schools so that parents don’t feel the need to put their children on a bus across town?

Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover said students shouldn’t have to spend three hours daily on a bus to get the same kind of education that other kids can get by walking down the street. Instead of moving students to try to achieve equity, Stover said they’d try to create equity at schools.

San Diego Unified has come up with a dozen different indicators of what makes a “quality school.” Those indicators range from parent engagement to setting clear expectations for students. A lot of the work stems from “It’s Being Done,” a book by journalist Karin Chenoweth that looks at schools with high poverty and high achievement.

There’s a ton of things that could play a part in the plan, from recruiting more teachers who reflect the ethnic makeup of the San Diego Unified schools to technology training for families. Check out pages 11 through 13 for the nitty-gritty details.

The school board was roundly supportive of the idea. But there was one big disagreement this morning: Whether to tackle the labor rules that drive how teachers are assigned to schools. (For background, check out our series that explains the complex and sometimes haphazard teacher placement system.)

School board member Scott Barnett decried the system for stopping the district from just assigning teachers where they want, saying it would undercut their efforts to improve schools and encourage neighborhood schooling.

“If we can’t change that, it’s going to be meaningless,” Barnett said of the reform plan.

School board President Richard Barrera disagreed sharply. “It’s being done,” he later said.

So now what? School district leaders say their next step is to form groups that will come up with specific five-year-goals to meet for each of those “quality school” indicators and strategies to make it happen. All of that feedback would go into a more polished plan for the board in November.

Neighborhood schooling also means an enormous shift in how San Diego Unified operates, from finding space to accommodate students who now bus out of their neighborhoods to filling schools that would be emptied if fewer students took the bus from elsewhere. Those issues haven’t been addressed yet.

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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