Kids in the southwest corner of the South Bay are leaving their neighborhood schools in droves. Schools there are struggling to survive, thanks to a school-choice program that lets families opt out of their community schools and enroll in higher-performing schools throughout the district.

No school has struggled more than Castle Park Senior High.

In the past five years, more than one in four Castle Park High students requested to transfer to another school in the Sweetwater Union High School District, an exodus of close to 1,200 kids over that time – the equivalent of about half the school’s population at its highest enrollment. Nationwide more students than ever are opting out of neighborhood schools. But the degree to which Castle Park is hemorrhaging students stands out even against that backdrop.

Many experts say the overall trend toward school choice is a good one. Academics applaud choice programs for giving disenfranchised groups the options to send their kids to high-performing schools. But school choice does present problems for schools like Castle Park that are left behind. Community advocates say the system has exacerbated existing problems at the struggling high school. Castle Park is still playing catch-up.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Nikki Eddy, a veteran English teacher, has seen Castle Park through highs and lows. In the 10 years since she’s been teaching there, Eddy has only seen her classes shrink smaller.

“I hope that we are able to get our numbers up,” Eddy said. “It’s sad to see a school that has tradition like Castle Park has, have the struggles that we’re having now.”

Exercising Choice

Think of characteristics typically associated with bad schools: low test scores, teachers and staff streaming in and out, crumbling facilities, a bad reputation.

Castle Park has them.

All these things make it harder for people to want to attend their neighborhood school.

Students transferring out of Castle Park make up 9 percent of the total number of students who’ve transferred schools across the district’s 32 campuses in the past five years, the most of any school.

They’re leaving through what’s known as open enrollment, a school choice program that gives all students the opportunity to transfer to another school. Officially, there are six categories under which families can request to send their kids elsewhere. But the district’s student services director, Steven Lizarraga, said kids can pretty much go to another school for any reason.

“That’s what open enrollment is all about,” Lizarraga said.

Experts agree school choice is good for kids. When families were forced to send their children to neighborhood schools, older and poorer communities were typically speckled with older, underperforming schools.

Families who wanted to give their kids a better education needed the means to move to neighborhoods with the best schools. But school choice programs make that unnecessary.

It’s a choice middle-class people make all the time based on where they live,” said Steve Rivkin, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies economic impacts on education outcomes.

“People with fewer resources tend to have fewer choices, a lot of supporters of open enrollment recognize that.”

Experts say open enrollment is meant to give struggling schools the ultimate wake-up call: Do a better job meeting students’ needs, or wave them goodbye.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

That starts with new programs: Schools losing students should revamp what they offer kids to try to attract them again.

“It’s all about programs, said Cathy Christie, vice president at the Education Commission of the States. “Facilities help, high-tech helps, all the bells and whistles help but you’re gonna pick the school that will do the most for your child.”

But it’s hard for a school like Castle Park that’s already hemorrhaging students to follow that advice. That’s because every time Castle Park loses a student, it loses money too.

Reputation > Programs

School funding in California is notoriously complicated. But there is a simple axiom: Money follows students.

When kids leave Castle Park to go to another SUHSD school, the money that pays to educate those kids leaves Castle Park as well.

That presents the school with a Catch-22. To keep students around, according to academic experts, the school needs new programs. To add programs, the school needs money. But money is constantly headed out the door along with the departing kids.

While administrators at the school say programs at Castle Park so far haven’t been downsized, science teacher Darci Kimball said the programs they do have are struggling to survive.

“Our challenge with a smaller population is we may not be able to provide the programs students want,” Kimball said. “So far they haven’t been completely eliminated but they are struggling. A lot of programs were in place but they became weaker over time.”

Kimball said there are teachers at Castle Park who could create marine biology or engineering programs. But until there are enough students to participate, those programs won’t move forward.

Still, the school does offer some programs that should be attractive to students.

It has a Science Innovation Academy, one of the only STEM programs in the district. It’s one of only two schools in SUHSD to offer courses in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. There are advanced classes and college readiness programs. For kids who want to jump on a career track, there are courses in construction, engineering and marketing. Castle Park has partnered with community organizations, connecting families to outside resources for help with everything from job training to putting food on the table.

All these things, Lizarraga said, should keep students at Castle Park.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

“If the school has that in place, there’s no reason to leave,” Lizarraga said.

That’s where another hurdle comes into play – one parents and teachers say is an even bigger issue than available programs: The school has a bad reputation.

In recent years Castle Park has weathered a few scandals. In 2011, there was a football hazing incident involving an alleged sexual assault.

The incident has become wrapped up in the school’s legacy.

“Still to this day, I had a kid mention it,” Eddy said. “The public memory of that is long. I know kids who left this school because of that. To me, it was the biggest reputation smearing. It had a strong impact.”

Reputation-damning events like the hazing incident have compounded an existing legacy as a tough school. Parents who attended Castle Park themselves are opting out of sending their kids there.

Lillian Uy graduated from Castle Park in 1993. She said joining color guard steered her in the right direction but she still had to face problems caused by other students on a daily basis.

Uy said she didn’t want her daughters to be exposed to fights.

“They would have brass knuckles, like gang-ridden,” Uy said. “You were fearful and you didn’t want to walk home alone.”

Uy said growing up, her parents weren’t very involved in her education. But from the time her girls were in elementary school, she knew she didn’t want to send them to Castle Park.

“I had already had in my mind that they were gonna go to the newer schools,” Uy said.

Changing Perceptions

New Principal Vicky Mitrovich is tackling Castle Park’s laundry list of problems.

She’s the sixth principal to lead Castle Park in the last 10 years. But unlike those before her, Mitrovich said she plans to stay put for a while.

Her goal: Make Castle Park a sought-after SUHSD school.

She wants to boost test scores. And she’s pushing to get Castle Park on the list for new facilities. But her biggest focus is on changing the school’s reputation in the community.

She believes that’s just as important, if not more, than adding programs or new facilities to attract families to the school.

“My vision is to transform the perception of this school,” Mitrovich said. “As principal, I need to try to get out there and make it as clear as possible that this is a place that you want your kids to come. We have a lot of opportunities for them here just like any other school in the district.”

One major problem: Kids don’t give Castle Park a chance before they even set foot on campus.

Mitrovich’s approach is to target Castle Park’s feeder elementary and middle schools.

A group of teachers, administrators and staff at Castle Park has been meeting this year to figure out how to capture those middle-schoolers. Kimball says it’s the first time since she’s been teaching at Castle Park there’s been a coordinated effort to increase the numbers of incoming ninth-graders.

“I want all 440 eighth-graders to come here,” Mitrovich said.

Castle Park is hosting a community fair in January, something Mitrovich plans to make happen a couple times a year. The idea is to show families whose kids are in elementary and middle school what Castle Park can offer them down the road.

She’s also sending top-performing students to middle schools to help tutor, as part of a sort-of publicity tour for Castle Park. One of them is senior Lizbeth Gastelum.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Gastelum is an honors student, serves as a student representative on the School Site Council and participates in multiple college-prep programs. She’s one of the ASB student leaders Mitrovich is sending out to the feeder schools as part of her effort to show-off Castle Park.

To become the top-notch school Castle Park aims to be, it needs other students like Gastelum to buy in and choose their neighborhood school.

“They should give it a chance because of the environment, the spirit, the motivation with college,” Gastelum said. “There’s really good students at our school. We have really good opportunities.”

Bianca Bruno is Voice of San Diego's News Literacy program manager. She works with Chula Vista residents, promoting equal access to news through civic...

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