In case you haven’t heard, San Diego Unified really wants a quality school in every neighborhood.

Some version of that rallying cry has been blasted on repeat since Superintendent Cindy Marten – who helped transform a low-performing urban school as principal of Central Elementary – took the helm. The phrase is a key component of the district’s Vision 2020, the long-term plan to increase student achievement across the district.

But district officials will have a steep hill to climb.

Christie Ritter on Schools

The number of parents opting out of their neighborhood schools in the San Diego Unified School District is only growing. Parents shop around, finding schools with better test scores, magnet schools offering specialized programs, and, more and more, they enroll in charter schools.

The number of students choosing an alternative to their neighborhood school has increased steadily each year. This year, 44.5 percent of students in the San Diego Unified School District – a total of 58,060 – are attending a school other than the one designated as their home school. That’s up from 33.1 percent from those who chose a non-neighborhood school during the 2004-05 school year.


Growth in School Choice

(Before we get too far, I’ll note: My two children are enrolled in San Diego Unified schools. They’ve both attended a neighborhood school at one time, but neither does now.)

For too long, the district sent the wrong message to parents, said school board member Richard Barrera. When schools were ordered to desegregate decades ago, San Diego Unified created magnet schools and began busing students across town. Barrera said that inadvertently conveyed the idea that neighborhood schools aren’t the best option.

The problem continues because the district is required by No Child Left Behind to inform parents who attend persistently low-performing schools that they have the option of attending a school with higher marks.

Out of 229 total schools, 153 San Diego Unified schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress in student achievement for at least two years. (Full disclosure: My son attends one of the schools.)

“The very engaged parents are tending to opt out of the neighborhood schools. They are making the choice to have their kids go someplace else,” Barrera said. “I think a large part of the achievement gap, when you talk about low-income students and students of color, is precisely concentrated in neighborhood schools where every kid is either poor, or an English-language learner or coming from a situation where the parents are working two or three jobs. Whatever the reason, the parents tend to be less engaged. That’s the result that several decades of desegregation and choice have produced, it’s produced higher concentrations of kids who are struggling in neighborhood schools and more segregation throughout the district.”

But migration to non-neighborhood schools can cause its own vicious cycle, said Board President John Lee Evans: It is can be harder for parents to get involved in schools that are farther away.

“A lot of times, there’s a certain brain drain and parent participation drain on the schools as the higher-achieving kids are going from a school in Clairemont over to University City,” Evans said. “The whole performance of the entire school, the people who are left, is going down, and as it goes down, fewer people want to go there. There’s a huge importance in the connection between the neighborhood and the school.”

Board member Scott Barnett said the district doesn’t really know why parents choose to send their children to non-neighborhood schools. “There’s no doubt that the lack of confidence in the quality of their neighborhood school is clearly a factor. But we don’t know really, because we haven’t asked.”

The process of enrolling in a school outside of a family’s neighborhood through the district’s Enrollment Options program can be difficult. With high ratings comes high demand.

Schools with comparatively high Academic Performance Index scores attract more applicants than they have space to accept. The same goes for schools with popular programs like language immersion.

The district is careful about enrolling too many students through the Enrollment Options program at popular sites, even when the school has the campus and staff capacity to allow more enrollment. Recently, schools across the district lost teachers and saw class sizes tick up, even though there were many students on the school choice waiting list for those schools. Admitting those students would have saved teaching positions at those schools, but cost a teacher at another less popular school.

Here’s how the process works.

Choice is a random, unbiased selection process for the most part, said Sandy Robles, who manages the Neighborhood Schools and Enrollment Options office. That is a change from past practice, when some categories of students got special priorities, including Special Education students and those enrolled in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Seminar program. Preference is given, however, to students who attend a school that has Program Improvement status under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Schools that serve large numbers of low-income children receive Title 1 funds through No Child Left Behind. As part of the program, state officials set annual student achievement targets. A school enters Program Improvement if it fails to meet those targets two years in a row.

Students who live in neighborhoods where their local school is in Program Improvement have a designated alternative school pattern in which they receive priority enrollment preference.

Then there’s charter schools.

An increasingly popular choice, charters have their own admission processes outside the district Enrollment Options office. There are now 49 charter schools in San Diego Unified, with 18,953 students enrolled. The district’s total enrollment for the 2013-14 school year is 130,041.

Charter schools like High Tech High have lotteries and long waiting lists. Laura McBain, director of external relations for the 11 affiliated High Tech schools, said the schools’ popularity means they can only accept about 10 percent of applicants. Last year, 547 students applied for 63 Kindergarten spots at Explorer Elementary in Point Loma.

School board members say the continuing out-migration from neighborhood schools is unhealthy.

“The idea is and the hope and promise is, as we achieve Vision 2020, students will seek out their neighborhood school,” said school board member Marne Foster.

There have been schools that have turned the tide, Barrera said.

McKinley Elementary School in North Park had 392 enrolled students in 2006-07. Declining enrolled meant the school was at risk of losing its International Baccalaureate program or even being shut down. Instead, the school community began promoting McKinley to the neighborhood. “Now Realtors market McKinley as a reason to move into the surrounding neighborhood,” Barrera said. Enrollment is up to 549 for the current school year.

Last year, the district changed the name of the office that deals with school choice from “Enrollment Options” to “Neighborhood Schools and Enrollment Options” – a move that alarmed some parents, who worry the choice program will vanish.

“Parents have many, many reasons for needing choice, and choice will still be an option for families, but we want the neighborhood schools to be an important option for our families,” said Robles.

“The emphasis of the strategy is not to do things to restrict choice,” Barrera said. “It is to do things to improve the quality of neighborhood schools, to open up the possibility that parents are going to choose their neighborhood school.”

Creating quality schools in every neighborhood won’t happen quickly, Barrera said.

“This is long-term work, which is why we talk about in terms of Vision 2020. Because it’s reversing decades of a strategy that was de-emphasizing neighborhood schools.”

Providing special programs that boost enrollment is also expensive.

San Diego Unified doesn’t have the funding to provide Mandarin classes at every school, for example, Barnett said. “But I think magnet schools will always play an important role for parents who want additional enrichment beyond just a quality education. The goal is you should be able to have that, without having to choice to another school.”

“The only way to effectively reduce choice, if you will, and more importantly, keep more kids in their neighborhood schools, is to improve the quality of the neighborhood schools,” Barnett said. “We have to improve the product. That’s what’s going to do it.”

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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