The School of Communications was in trouble almost from the start.

It was supposed to be a place for English learners, a haven for the students whose communication barriers present schools with some of their most bedeviling struggles. Its former principal, Cesar Alcantar, says the San Diego Unified School District told him the school could be exempt from the weighty labels and restrictions of No Child Left Behind, considering its English scores would lag.

But seven years later, that dream has been deflated and its future is in question.

San Diego Unified never got it any exemption from No Child Left Behind. The district forced the school to abort its mission right after it opened, saying it would unfairly segregate English learners. Teachers had begun to fear the same, worrying that students got too little exposure to English.

The school-within-a-school at San Diego High tried to remake itself. But its reputation stuck. And the English learners stayed. It was no longer a school for English learners, but it still ended up being a school full of English learners. Last year its test scores were almost the lowest among San Diego Unified high schools, second only to an alternative school for struggling teens.

“It was a school that was designed to fail,” said school board President Richard Barrera, who wants to close the school-within-a-school at San Diego High to integrate English learners into the other small schools at San Diego High.

Principal Anisha Dalal argues that unless San Diego High finds a better way to ensure that English learners are integrated into all of its schools, closing her school wouldn’t change anything.

“Another school will absorb them and become the new school of the English learners,” Dalal said.

Flush with millions from the Gates Foundation, the massive San Diego High site was broken seven years ago into six small schools, each with its own theme and principal. The idea was to divide huge, anonymous high schools into smaller, more personalized schools geared to different interests.

Nowhere have the mixed results of small high schools been clearer than San Diego High, where one of the district’s most lauded schools and most challenged sit on the same downtown campus. Some flourished, like the School of International Studies, which routinely ranks high on national lists.

But International Studies and SoComm, as the School of Communications is nicknamed, are so different that they might as well be miles apart. English learners make up 65 percent of SoComm and only 3 percent of International Studies. Small schools were supposed to sort out kids who liked art or science or business, but at San Diego High, they ended up dividing up students by language and class too.

That wasn’t an accident. SoComm was imagined as a bold way of nudging English learners to fluency, one of the biggest challenges for schools in San Diego and across California. But the very idea that sparked it, bringing English learners to one school, ended up being the very thing that dragged it down.

After San Diego Unified told the school to shed its identity as a haven for English learners, it tried to patch together a new theme — communications — and threw the school open to everyone. But the English learners kept coming, year after year. Teens followed friends, brothers and sisters to the same schools. Other students pegged it as the school for kids fresh from Tijuana.

One teacher said he had to relearn how to teach in his first few years at the school. “I’d be talking and they’d have that glazed look. They didn’t understand anything coming out of my mouth,” said Carlo Robledo, who teaches government, yearbook and video production. That made state tests even more daunting. “We were not going to work in the No Child Left Behind world.”

Teachers began to fear that with so few classmates who spoke English, it was actually harder for them to pick up the language, a fatal flaw.

It isn’t impossible to run a successful school for English learners. But they tend to work better when kids have no common tongue. Because almost all the students spoke Spanish, they were less likely to practice English outside of class. When the school clerk tutted at a girl for brushing past me on her way to class, the teen replied to the clerk, “¿Mande?” — Excuse me? — then uttered, “¡Perdon!”

To bring in more English speakers, Dalal and her teachers have worked to burnish its new identity. Now kids learn about graphic design and broadcasting in front of glossy new computers. Teens record a news show in a sleek studio rigged with blinking panels and sliding buttons. They craft documentaries and brochures about homophobia and eating disorders and design posters about books they’ve read.

“They really push you. They really explain things for you,” said Bereket Berihun, a senior who created a film about Ethiopian wanderers who left their country. When asked about the idea of the school being disbanded, Berihun went silent. “I don’t know what to say. That’s crazy.”

Its scores are still low, but they’ve grown. SoComm made one of the biggest jumps in test scores countywide. And it has had other successes beyond the scores: Seven students won Price Scholarships of $10,000. Its valedictorian lived in Mexico until eighth grade. Now she’s off to San Diego State University.

“Are we successful? Absolutely,” said Mary Sunderland, who has taught art classes like screen printing and graphic design there for five years. “But it’s all about the scores. They say it’s all about the kids. But they don’t come and look at the kids. They do look at the scores.”

Kids choose which small schools to go to, and despite the rebranding, many teens still see SoComm as the school for English learners, which deters teens who are fluent from signing up. Some English learners went there because they thought none of the other small schools had classes for them.

Eighteen-year-old Joseph Mar chose the school because he gravitated toward multimedia projects. But Mar found it difficult to make friends there because his classmates chatted in Spanish, which he doesn’t speak. He befriended some kids at the School of International Studies instead.

“They were like, ‘Whoa, we thought that was the ESL school,’” Mar said.

Since the money from the Gates Foundation disappeared and budgets were slashed, the small high schools have had to grapple with their future. San Diego Unified will give the six schools at San Diego High just three principals next year. The schools came up with a plan to share them this spring.

And that has led to deeper soul-searching about the future of San Diego High and the vast gaps between its side-by-side schools. Should it spread its English learners around? How could it do so if students are still allowed to choose whichever school they want? And should SoComm exist at all? Teachers still believe it can thrive, but only if the schools work together to stop clustering English learners at SoComm.

“Everyone else was happy to have all the issues here,” Sunderland said. “We can’t do this in isolation.”

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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