The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


As an education reporter, I expect news to slow during the summer. School board meetings wind down, teachers take vacation and kids are plugged into camps or, if they were anything like me, busy making mischief.

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For that, I also expect interest in education coverage to wane. You’ve proven me wrong. Your questions rolled into The Learning Curve these past three months and gave me plenty of fodder for this column.

It probably seems like just yesterday you were mid-dash, exhausted from the school year, making summer plans for your kids.

Gird yourself. It’s time to do it all again. Some districts in San Diego County are already back in session. San Diego Unified kicks off the school year Sept. 8.

In the coming weeks, I’ll start looking ahead for the coming year. Before I do, I wanted to recap the ground we’ve covered this summer.

When Bullies Run the Classroom (June 4)

Watching a talented teacher work is like watching performance art. Teachers don’t magically come up with a lesson then upload it to students’ brains. They have to account for 30 kids in the class, each with his or her own unique learning needs. They need the ability to pivot and an endless source of empathy.

Their work is heroic. But they’re also human. As such, some can be straight-up bullies. I put together a few ideas for what to do if you think your child’s teacher is one of these types: Talk with other parents, talk with the teacher, take it to the principal and possibly to the school board. Follow the chain of command. If all else fails, send me an email. It won’t be the first time I’ve heard the story.

The Schools-Within-a-School-Model (June 11)

In the early- to mid-2000s, the schools-within-a-school model – where a large high school is broken into small, themed academies – was all the rage. There was Gates Foundation money on the table for high schools that implemented it, and a number of local schools jumped on the bandwagon.

The thinking is that the model gives schools a better chance to personalize instruction for kids and appeal to their interests.

Around 2009, however, schools started to realize just how difficult it was to pull off. At San Diego High, the model actually segregated students instead of expanding access. By the end of last year, SD High closed another one of its academies – the third to close in the past 10 years.

That’s not to say the model is impossible to make work. Kearny High is proof of that.

A Strong Foundation for Certain Students (June 18)

California schools have a funding problem, and kids bear the brunt of it. Whether you think that’s a result of inadequate funding from the state, or bloated teacher and administrator pay, the fact is money isn’t reaching kids in classrooms.

That’s evidenced by parents who go door to door, selling things that people don’t need, under the implicit threat that if they don’t, their kids might lose art, music or science class. Enter school foundations, mostly parent-run, nonprofits that raise money for specific schools.

The question is whether they exacerbate disparities between the have and have-nots. The answer isn’t simple, and comes down to a matter of ethics.

No Plans to Change Post-and-Bid (June 25)

You might have heard of Vergara v. California, a landmark case in which a judge found state laws governing how teachers are hired and fired have a particularly negative impact on low-income students.

In other words, these laws put less experienced, less effective teachers in schools where students need the most help. But even if this case is upheld, it wouldn’t automatically change the seniority-based placement system San Diego uses to determine where teachers work. And currently, the district has no plans to change that system.

Vaccine Law Is Settled, Passions Not So Much (July 2)

In late June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that eliminates personal and religious exemptions for mandatory child vaccinations.

Anti-vaxxers wanted none of it. I looked at some of the reasons why the new law might not mean instant death for our children.

Where Real Estate Sites’ School Scores Come From (July 9)

If you’re looking to buy a house, websites like Zillow and Trulia provide information on nearby schools, including a quick and easy rating for how good they are. You might have wondered where these scores come from.

The answer to that is GreatSchools, an organization funded in part by the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The data the site lists is incomplete and sometimes dated. But it can be a useful, if somewhat rough, guide to school quality.

Dropping Knowledge on Dropout Rates (July 16)

Nationally, graduation rates are at an all-time high. In June, NPR pulled together reporters from various states to dig deeper into the trend. They found those numbers aren’t always as straightforward as they appear.

I talked to Ron Rode, a data whiz from San Diego Unified. He helped me with this explainer on how the district calculates its graduation and dropout rates.

School’s In for Summer (Just Not in Enough Places) (July 23)

High-quality summer school programs: They’re good and we should have more of them. They’re also expensive. Paying for them might be even more complicated than addressing summer learning loss.

Getting Ahead By Starting Late (July 30)

School starts pretty damn early. That can be especially problematic for chronically unrested teenagers. But if you have a problem with that, you’re going to have to take it up with the district’s transportation department. School schedules have a lot to do with busing schedules.

What’s Keeping Preschool Out of Reach (Aug. 6)

The topic for the past two Learning Curves has been more personal for me. I have a daughter who’s preschool-aged, so I’ve been looking at where I should enroll her and what I should be thinking about.

I fold my own questions into this post, where I look at what age kids can start preschool (as early as 2), and what qualifies them for a district preschool. San Diego Unified has 4,000 preschool seats, 800 of which go empty, thanks, in part, to onerous registration requirements.

What to Look for in a Preschool (Aug. 13)

We hear a lot about the importance of preschool, but it always seems to come with a kind of caveat: Preschool is important, but more important is access to a high-quality preschool. So what makes a preschool high quality?

There’s a lot you can look for, but one huge piece comes down to teacher-student interactions.

As always, if you have a question I haven’t answered, or if my recap triggered a new one for you, drop me a line at

Ed Reads of the Week

• How the Pinellas County School Board Neglected Five Schools Until They Became the Worst in Florida (Tampa Bay Times)

Right from the top of this story, it’s a punch in the gut: First, the school board in Pinellas County, Fla., abandoned integration. Then it broke promises of giving more money and resources to schools. Then, as teachers walked off the job and white families fled, the school board stood by and did nothing.

This is powerful reporting, elevated to a level of accountability you don’t often see in education stories. It’s too easy to let officials off the hook with non-answers. These reporters didn’t let them slide.

In addition to the blowout narrative and interactive graphics, reporters managed to get school board members to respond to the findings.

“As a responsible and informed school board member, I can’t simply give yes or no answers … ” read one typical response.

• John Kasich: ‘Abolish all teachers’ lounges’ (Politico)

Here’s a good lede: “While some Republicans have called for abolishing the federal Education Department, Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday set his sights on a smaller target: the teachers’ lounge.”

As Kasich sees it, teachers’ lounges are ground zero for teachers to spread polarizing rhetoric and scare colleagues about their jobs.

“If I were, not president, if I were king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us’,” Kasich said.

• On Empathy: Teachers, Teaching and Coming to Grips With Being a Douchebag (Medium)

Lest I be accused of teacher-bashing for including that last story, here’s one from the other side. Read as this man comes to grips with the way he treated his high school science teacher and the realization that “Teaching, turns out, is fucking hard.”

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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