There’s a major problem with San Diego Unified’s plan to keep kids in their neighborhood schools: Parents aren’t buying in.

It’s nothing new, really. Parents have been opting out of their neighborhood schools for years. But the numbers are finally getting some sunlight.

The district is workshopping a new plan Tuesday for how it can compete with charter schools and make traditional neighborhood schools more attractive.

Because it needs to do something to compete. Since 2009, traditional district schools have lost about 1,000 students a year. During that same time, charter schools have gained about 1,000 a year, according to data the district just released.

Sure, the overall number of students in the district has gone down some in that time, too – but only by about 2,000.

Schools with better reputations, specifically schools in La Jolla and Scripps Ranch, are holding onto more than 90 percent of their kids. The same can’t be said for schools in economically depressed parts of town. At Lincoln High in southeastern San Diego, for example, about 70 percent of area kids are choosing to attend school elsewhere.

Charter schools are often blamed for siphoning kids away from the neighborhood schools. But the numbers show us something important: When neighborhood schools have solid academics and good reputations, like they generally do in La Jolla, most kids aren’t going anywhere.

The data also illuminates questions about the district’s Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood initiative. I’ve heard anecdotally that if all the kids living near Lincoln High wanted to attend that school – there wouldn’t be space for them. As it stands, Lincoln has space for another 1,100 kids.

On the other side of the equation, if Mission Bay High were to only serve kids in its immediate vicinity, there wouldn’t be enough students to sustain the school. Until now, I haven’t seen data that supports those claims. It’s certainly a bug in the overarching plan to keep kids in their neighborhood schools.

The reasons why parents are opting out of neighborhood schools is a fascinating question. We’re going to keep trying to answer it. Parent preference might be based on schools’ academics, or reputation – deserved or not. It may also be a little both.

David Meyer, a math professor at UCSD and San Diego Unified parent, took it up a notch. He tweeted this graph. It shows the number of students leaving their neighborhood schools, combined with the percentages of students who are on track to meet graduation requirements for 2016.

Meyer took this data from a presentation the district gave this past October, which you can find here. The X-axis corresponds to the percentage of students on track to graduate. The Y-axis is the percent of kids attending their neighborhood schools:

Here’s why: local attendance vs “on-track to graduate” @MarioKoran

— David Meyer (@dajmeyer) April 21, 2015

Recall that starting next year, all students will have to pass a series of college prep classes, known as A-G courses, in order to graduate.

The graph shows the high schools with high percentages of kids on track to meet the graduation standards pretty much mirror the high schools that are able to hold onto the kids in their neighborhood.

That’s not to say that these trends started when the district decided to require A-G for all. That decision was made in 2011, and schools’ reputations – and likely choice patterns – predate the A-G requirement.

But there’s an important chicken-or-egg question the graph can’t answer: Do students leave their neighborhood schools because their academics are less than stellar, or do some neighborhood schools flounder academically because students are leaving?

Here again, the safe guess would be to say that it’s a little of both. But it will take some more research – and reporting – to know for sure.

Superintendent Cindy Marten often talks about looking at schools through an “appreciative lens,” which basically means looking for the things that are working well at some schools and trying to replicate it in others. But sometimes it’s also helpful to know what’s actually going wrong at schools so we can stop repeating mistakes. The best marketing in the world can’t fix a broken product.

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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