After being restructured and rebranded three times in the past 20 years, Memorial Prep for Scholars and Athletes, a middle school in Logan Heights, is the San Diego Unified school that parents avoid most.

Now, Councilman David Alvarez wants the district to tear the school down and build a new one. A fresh school, Alvarez hopes, will give parents the option of sending their kids to a high-quality middle school without busing them to more affluent neighborhoods.

Alvarez first spoke publicly about plans for Memorial Prep on a recent VOSD podcast. In a follow-up conversation, he told me he initiated a number of conversations about the rebuild with district officials and board trustee Richard Barrera, who oversees that area of the district.

Barrera did not respond to a request for comment, but a district spokesperson said officials plan to approach parents and neighborhood residents to gauge interest in the plan.

Alvarez, whose district Memorial Prep falls into, told me when he attended the school in the early to mid-’90s, it was fairly rigorous. At the time, it served as a kind of preparatory school for San Diego High’s competitive international studies program.

Shortly after Alvarez left, things changed. First, it became a district-run charter school with a unionized teaching staff. The school sputtered. By 2005, test scores were so low school leaders restructured Memorial Prep again – this time converting it into an independent charter.

That didn’t work either. Part of the draw of an independent charter is the autonomous governance structure: Charters have their own board that can adjust curriculum and policies to meet student needs.

But at Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology – as the school was then named – board members got locked into a toxic power struggle. Academics were unimpressive. Staff turnover was rampant. Just three years after its charter was approved, parents and teachers wanted San Diego Unified to reabsorb it as a district school. That happened in 2008.

It was renamed Memorial Prep for Scholars and Athletes and became a magnet school, a term for a district school based around a special theme or focus. In Memorial Prep’s case, the curriculum would be based around technology, international studies and sports.

Magnets are also able to draw kids from various neighborhoods – and the hope is they’ll be attractive enough to do so.

When the district put out data showing which neighborhood schools parents avoided most, however, Memorial Prep topped the list. Out of the 2,020 middle school-aged kids who live near Memorial Prep, more than 80 percent choose to go elsewhere.

Alvarez said he noticed a common theme in conversations with principals and parents in the area: Families are fairly happy with how well elementary schools are serving kids, but they believe they have to look elsewhere to send their children to a high-quality middle school. That’s what motivated Alvarez to bring the issue to district officials, he said.

“They want their kids to be challenged and be successful,” Alvarez said. “And that option currently doesn’t exist for parents of kids who are supposed to be feeding into (Memorial Prep). So they’re going somewhere else.”

Data from the California Department of Education gives clues as to why that’s happening.

The most recent test scores available land Memorial Prep in the lowest 10 percent of middle schools statewide. Even when you account for poverty and student demographics, it still ranks below average among similar schools.

Along with academic shortcomings, the most formidable challenge is changing the school’s reputation. That’s where Alvarez thinks the school could benefit from a “rebranding”: a remade curriculum – perhaps with a STEM theme – and a new marketing strategy.

“The way I see it is, this is a product that you’ve got to market,” he said. “While physically rebuilding the school doesn’t necessarily entirely change everything, it needs to become an attractive product,” said Alvarez.

District spokesperson Ursula Kroemer said plans for Memorial Prep are still “very, very preliminary.” There are kinks to iron out. Logan K-8, a King Chavez charter school and a branch of the city library also use space on that campus, so they’d factor into the plans, Kroemer said.

No publicly available documents show funds earmarked for a Memorial Prep rebuild, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table.

On the project lists for Prop. S and Z – school construction bonds that Alvarez said would likely be the money source for the project – pretty much every school is scheduled for some kind of renovation, including Memorial Prep. And bond language is written vaguely enough that the district could theoretically build a new school wherever it wants.

Quality Neighborhood Schools

But history shows us that simply rebuilding and rebranding, without addressing the underlying issues, won’t be enough. Lincoln High has also been rebuilt, then restructured and rebranded multiple times, to lackluster results.

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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