In many ways, the La Jolla cluster of schools’ new agreement with San Diego Unified represents exactly what the school board has said it wants to see more of: a community taking ownership of its schools and speaking with unity.

Even better, it fits squarely within the district’s goal to create a quality school in each neighborhood — the centerpiece of its Vision 2020 plan.

But the agreement represents something else too: La Jolla’s record of working within the rules to get what it wants.

La Jolla schools have achieved a coveted status in the San Diego Unified school district. Year after year, their students put up the best scores in the district. And the district just granted them more wiggle room to help them continue the tradition.

This week the school board granted La Jolla schools more flexibility in things like how they structure their curriculums, choose textbooks and hire teachers.

The agreement makes it easier for La Jolla schools to bypass the district’s post-and-bid hiring policy, a convoluted system that limits schools with job openings to the five most senior applicants. Schools would still need approval from the teachers union if they want to make those changes, but the agreement sets the table for a new standard.

By itself, the agreement doesn’t propose radical changes to the relationship La Jolla already has with the district.

But it’s hard to divorce this newest effort from La Jolla’s history of threatening to split off to form its own charter school – or entire school district.

Losing La Jolla would be a failure for San Diego Unified. The district would lose students, and therefore funding. Without La Jolla’s test scores to buoy other schools’ performances, the district’s averages would drop a bit. And the district would certainly lose bragging rights if it lost some its highest-performing schools.

Instead of splitting away from the district, which is difficult to do, parents in La Jolla have found a way to tax themselves to help get their kids’ schools the money they need.

In 2011-2012, La Jolla parents in raised $2.37 million in private funds, all of which stayed in those schools. That money helped provide for tutors, hire support teachers or fund art or music programs.

The district is structured in so-called clusters, or groups of schools bunched by geography. Elementary schools feed into area middle schools, which then feed into a large high school. The thinking is that attending schools close to home fosters a sense of connectedness.

But last year, about 45 percent of parents in the district took advantage of an option that allows students to attend schools outside of their neighborhood. That was almost 60,000 students.

But each school has limited capacity. This means that schools in La Jolla get more applications than they have space to handle. Of the 666 combined applications the La Jolla cluster received last year, they only offered seats to 23 percent.

Perhaps it’s to be expected that clusters with the best test scores saw more applicants and had to be more exclusive.

Averaged out, in 2013 the La Jolla cluster notched a 939 API score – a composite score based on standardized tests.  That was the highest in the district that year, followed by Scripps Ranch, with a 931.

Compare that with the two lowest-scoring clusters: El Cerrito’s Crawford cluster, which got a 748, and southeastern San Diego’s Lincoln cluster, which earned a 753. The districtwide average was 809.

The low test scores become more concerning when we compare the demographics of the schools at the top to those at the bottom.

Lincoln and Crawford have roughly six times the share of English learners as La Jolla and Scripps Ranch. More than 80 percent of students in the Crawford and Lincoln are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Compare that with La Jolla and Scripps Ranch, where 14 and 11 percent of students get subsidized lunches, respectively.

This adds uncomfortable context to one provision of the new La Jolla agreement, which would give preference to district employees if they work in La Jolla schools and want to enroll their kids there.

The decision makes practical sense: If a parent teaches in a La Jolla school, it would be more convenient for them to pick their kid up from a nearby school.

But now children of school district employees could potentially displace a low-income student from a struggling school who wanted to attend school in La Jolla.

To be sure, the La Jolla cluster’s effort is a shining example of the district’s mission to incentivize kids to attend schools in their home neighborhoods.

But it also points to what may be the Achilles heel of the district’s neighborhood schooling push. As an unintended consequence, schools may become more racially and economically homogenous schools than they already are.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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