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Welcome to round one of The Learning Curve!

Last week, I asked you to send some questions about how our local schools work. You stepped up. Thank you. We are now friends. I got questions ranging from charter schools to anti-bullying policies to why kids have so much homework these days.

Each week, I’ll be tackling your submissions. If you submitted questions but don’t see responses here, it doesn’t mean I won’t address them – I’m just squirreling them away for future editions or stories.

I’ll also include a few links to Reads of the Week and talk about some goings-on in the local school scene. We’ll make a kind of newsletter out of this thing. Those are trending, I hear.

Let’s get started.

Question: “School choice: How does the system work?”  – Amy Redding, a San Diego Unified parent

In addition to being a parent, Redding is also the chair of a district-level advisory committee. She knows this process – she’s gone through it for two kids – but she said she’s fielded this question many times over the years and thought it would be a good one for me to tackle.

So, if your child attends a San Diego Unified school, you’ve got a lot of options.

Assuming your kids are already registered for school, which typically happens before they enter a district preschool or kindergarten, attendance is based on neighborhood boundaries, which you can find here.

But let’s say your neighborhood school doesn’t do it for you. You drive by the school every day, and it’s just not what you want for your kid. During the open enrollment period – between Nov. 1 and Feb. 15 – you can apply to attend other district schools the following year. It doesn’t matter how early you submit this application, as long as it’s in by the deadline.

You pick your three top schools (a few years ago you could choose five schools), complete your application and then wait for a call. If there’s space at your top choice, your child can either attend that school, or stay at the neighborhood school. Same goes for the second and third choices.

If your child gets into a school, transportation is up to you – for the most part. Kids coming from underperforming schools are eligible to ride buses, but space is extremely limited.

There’s no guarantee you’d get in. It depends on how many seats your desired school makes available. But certain factors can earn your child priority consideration. If your neighborhood school is on a list of chronically low-performing schools, or if a sibling attends the school you’re eyeing, you’d get preference, for example.

Other options include charter schools. That’s an entirely different process that runs parallel to the district’s open-enrollment program. Some charter schools, like High Tech High, get way more applications than they have seats. Here, admission is based on a computer-generated lottery that draws from different ZIP codes. Check out the California Charter Schools Association for more info.

Applying to charter schools doesn’t affect your application to neighborhood schools, so some parents hedge their bets and apply to various charter schools and the district’s neighborhood schools simultaneously. It’s a high-stakes game, after all, and some parents prefer to play the odds.

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Question: “As a parent trying to decide where to send our kids to school (local public school, charter school, nearby public school, etc.), we want to make sure we send them to a school where they can succeed. Assuming that everything is going well outside of the school, what factors should we be looking at when picking a school?  Class size ratios?  Standardized test scores? Or does none of that actually matter in regards to an individual student’s success?” –  Matt Stucky, a Mission Valley parent

I’ve gotten this question in different ways. For the past 15 years, a clear-cut way for parents to gauge a school’s quality has been to look at its API scores, a three-digit composite number based on test scores. I know, I know. Test scores are a pretty narrow view of a school’s success. But they’re straightforward.

The California Department of Education makes that data available and allows you to see how a school stacks up to others with similar demographics. But for the past two years, while the state’s been transitioning to new tests, the API system has been in limbo. You can still take a historical look at a school’s scores, but they’ll become more outdated.

That said, you can get a pretty good sense of a school’s attributes by looking at School Accountability Report Cards, which include info on demographics, class-size ratios and course offerings.

Another thing I’d recommend is contacting the school to see if you could visit. Many schools offer tours during the district’s open enrollment period. This will give you a chance to see if the school’s environment feels right for your kid and if the staff is warm and open. Talk to parents whose kids attend the school. See if they’re satisfied with the experience.

Finally, as to what you should be looking for in a school, I hate to hedge on this part, but a lot of it really does come down to what you value. For some parents, the neighborhood school offers everything they’re looking for, and they really can’t beat sending their kids to school down to street. Others are drawn to high test scores, programs for Gifted and Talented students or schools structured around a theme, like performing arts or foreign languages.

For others, the flexibility and innovation charters can offer is the only way to fly. I’ve talked to some charter school parents who aren’t all that interested in test scores, but want a school that can tailor instruction more specifically to their kids. There’s also what I call it the X factor – that quality you can’t quite define, but know it feels right and engaging.

The Local Ed Scene

Big news dropped Monday night when the San Diego Education Association and San Diego Unified declared an impasse. Contract negotiations between the district and the teachers union have been ongoing for 10 months, and despite announcements that discussions were progressing well, SDEA and San Diego Unified are seemingly at a standstill.

According to a statement Superintendent Cindy Marten put out Monday, the district’s reached an agreement with the union on several items, like adding more counselors and special education support. But they’re stuck on class-size ratios and pay raises. U-T San Diego had an early story, and KPBS posted a video, complete with fun scene transitions.

An impasse happens when, during negotiations, one or both parties raise their hands and say they’ve gone as far as they can. At that point, an outside party comes in to mediate the dispute and make a non-binding recommendation on how to move forward. If this part of the process is also exhausted, a teacher strike could happen – but San Diego Unified says that’s a long way off.

A word of caution as you watch this unfold: While a head-to-head clash between the union and district makes for good drama, the real story may be less contentious than it appears.

Remember, the public only sees a sliver of the action, and a lot is said behind closed doors and in private conversations. Neither side wants to appear as if it caved to the other’s demands. So while the contest may come down to protecting the bottom line, it’s also about managing public perception.

That’s not to say the final contract agreement doesn’t have a very real impact on the budget. But in this situation, it’s best to keep your eye on the ball: the most current proposals and the district’s budget.

Ed Reads of the Week

How Prison Stints Replaced Study Halls” (Politico)

If you’ve heard talk about racial disparities in school discipline rates, but weren’t sure whether you should care, this disturbing report might shock your conscience.

Jody Owens, a managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, zooms in on Meridian, Miss., where police officers “were spending so much time hauling handcuffed students from school to the local juvenile jail that they began describing themselves as ‘just a taxi service.’”

The behavior that landed kids in juvie? One 15-year-old girl was suspended and locked up for a dress code violation. Her dress was the wrong shade of blue. Another boy landed behind bars for passing gas in a classroom. It so happens that in Meridian, 86 percent of students are black.

Closing Arguments Begin in Test Cheating Trial of 12 Atlanta Educators” (New York Times)

 This week in Atlanta, closing arguments began in the nation’s most notorious testing scandal.

The case concerns Atlantic Public Schools, which prosecutors say fostered a rampant culture of cheating. Teachers and principals supposedly held “erasure parties” in a coordinated effort to change scores on standardized tests.

The prosecutor on the case didn’t hold back: “They cheated. They lied. And they stole,” he told jurors.

The case has been held up as a painful example of No Child Left Behind’s failure – a response to the pressure to raise student test scores at all costs. It could also be simply a case of irresponsible educators gone rogue.

Worth revisiting is the deeply reported work The New Yorker published this summer. A close examination makes it a bit harder to distinguish the heroes from the villains.

Mario Koran

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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