When Kathy Taylor toured Jefferson Elementary in North Park, she wondered, “Is this really my neighborhood school?”

It didn’t look like the crowds at summer concerts she attends on the northern edge of Balboa Park, where families picnic to the backdrop of the downtown skyline. Most of the Jefferson students were poor. Many were still learning English.

Jefferson Elementary is indeed her neighborhood school. But more than half of the public school students who live in the North Park neighborhood around Jefferson Elementary don’t go there, and that doesn’t include many other families who choose private schools. Scores of other families from outside of the area go out of their way to get into Jefferson.

Taylor, a public school graduate, ended up sending her child to private school.

“I wanted this feeling of community. But what we have is not a community,” she said. “Everybody is sending their kids to other places.”

These strange patterns can be traced by race: Dozens of white families who live blocks from the school do not send their kids there, often choosing schools just a mile or two away with higher test scores. Dozens of Latino families who live elsewhere do, saying they love this school.

Alicia Sanchez initially transferred her children to a new school when she moved to Grant Hill. “But we didn’t like it. It had less discipline,” she explained in Spanish. “We came back to Jefferson.”

San Diego Unified is supposed to integrate its schools. It has a slew of different programs that let parents choose schools, some aimed specifically at integration, some just at offering families more choice. Throwing all schools open to all students might seem to be a recipe for diversity.

As this little school in North Park reveals, that hasn’t always happened. If every public schooler in the neighborhood went to Jefferson, the school would almost mirror San Diego Unified as a whole — roughly half Latino, about a fourth white, a sixth African-American, the rest a mix of other races.

The kids who actually come to Jefferson are mostly Latino and African-American. The vast majority are poor enough to get free lunches.

This eclectic stretch of North Park ranges from stately homes that overlook Morley Field to dense apartments along University Avenue. But when parents in this seemingly integrated neighborhood went through a school selection process, they ended up resegregating themselves.


Photo by Sam Hodgson
Matt and Susanne Thompson, who live just blocks from Jefferson, chose to send their kids to nearby Einstein Elementary, because it offers German.

Gone are the days when every child just went to their neighborhood school. Almost 44 percent of San Diego Unified students choose another school instead.

Many parents no longer see the local school as the default at all.

Matt Thompson never really looked at Jefferson. His wife is German and they longed for a school that would nurture their children as bilingual. They chose a nearby charter school, Einstein Elementary, because it offered German instruction.

Parents now have a host of options when it comes time to decide where to send their children.

After San Diego got slammed in court for segregation in the ‘70s, it designed integration busing and magnet schools to mix students of different colors. Parents can also, like Thompson, shoot for a charter school or even just pick another school if they can get their kids there in the morning.

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Those two goals of integration and choice have sometimes clashed. A voiceofsandiego.org analysis found that in some San Diego schools, choice has actually deepened segregation.

That can end up isolating the neediest children: In San Diego, poor children live in neighborhoods where about a third of children are poor, but they go to schools where more than half of students are poor, packing the problems of poverty into schools, according to one national study.

Integration backers argue that diversity isn’t just a Kumbaya cause: It ensures poor children of color get exposed to more of the same things as wealthy white children. But many San Diegans have grown disenchanted with seeing the achievement gap persist while students of color spend hours on buses.

“All the supposed benefits of busing could be achieved by simply integrating the neighborhood school,” argued school board President Richard Barrera, “in a neighborhood that is already diverse.”

San Diego Unified is now paring back on busing and encouraging families to go to their neighborhood school. But parents are still free to choose other schools and drive their kids themselves. So the question remains: Will parents buy into neighborhood schooling or not? What will it take to change their habits?

It is a mystery to Elaine Saville.

When the longtime educator shows off Jefferson Elementary to families eyeing the school — usually white parents who speak English — she proudly leads them to classrooms to tout their Spanish lessons, teachers trained in working with gifted children, Family Fridays and more.

“I always have such a positive feeling,” Saville said. “But many of them don’t choose us.”


Photo by Sam Hodgson
Rosa Orozco reads with her daughter Kalei Rittal (left) and classmate Fernanda Nava.

Rosa Orozco is puzzled that any parent wouldn’t choose her school.

She was all smiles on a June evening as Jefferson was abuzz with the chatter of children. The kids earnestly expounded on illiteracy in Guatemala, explained how coral bleaching works, even delved into the motivations of animal poachers.

“It’s a common stereotype that poachers are uneducated, but really only some of them are,” fifth grader Daniel Naranjo explained to adults, displaying graphs of ivory prices and the number of rhinos poached.

It was the annual exhibition for fifth graders, an elementary school capstone to the International Baccalaureate curriculum that requires youngsters to reflect on global concerns. Principal Francisco Morga strolled through classrooms proudly. This is one of the things he loves about Jefferson.

“We’re not just teaching them academics,” Morga said. “We’re teaching them to be global citizens.”

That was why Orozco came here. The single mom picked Jefferson over nearby Garfield Elementary a few years ago and now works in its preschool and heads its PTA. She found it more welcoming to parents, less narrowly focused on test scores. Jefferson, she said, prepares kids for life.

But parents do not always see those things from the outside. What they can see are test scores.

Almost all of the public school families in the neighborhood who don’t send their children to Jefferson send them to schools with higher scores — Birney, McKinley, Florence, the nearby Einstein charter school.

The frustration for Jefferson is it also has more English learners than those higher-scoring schools — an obvious disadvantage on English tests. It actually scores above-average compared to similar schools.

Then there’s the marketing.

For some parents, Jefferson is good, but somewhere else was just better. Jefferson has the International Baccalaureate program, but so do other nearby schools. Einstein teaches German. San Diego Cooperative Charter requires parents to volunteer.

And Jefferson just doesn’t look as nice from the outside. The little school is located behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken on University Avenue. It has a vast dusty field that Morga can’t wait to get replaced; he keeps a big drawing in his office showing what Jefferson will look like when its new field is finished.

Andy Pendoley is still scoping out schools for his two preschoolers.

He wants to help Jefferson and North Park thrive by enrolling his kids there. But the test scores still worry him as he thinks about his kids competing to get into college someday. Other parents fret about its lackluster fields.

Part of its draw, though, is its preschool: Unlike some of the neighboring schools, Jefferson has a public preschool for families with limited incomes. Many build bonds with teachers and decide to stay.

Lisa Hazelden sent her kids there for preschool and didn’t see any reason to pull them from teachers they already loved. “The scores may not be the highest,” she said. “But my kids seem to do well.”

Giving parents like Pendoley and Hazelden the power to choose schools has been at the heart of school reform for decades. But when New York author Peg Tyre took a hard look at that idea, she realized there was a big problem. Parents — even wealthy parents — don’t necessarily know how to choose schools.

Choosing a school isn’t the logical market that Milton Friedman envisioned, where parents reward the strongest schools, Tyre said. Families turn to test scores or an “echo chamber” of fellow parents. Both can mislead them.

And here in North Park, those choices have ended up dividing them more deeply.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Emily Alpert

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

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