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The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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It sounds so straightforward and warm: Make each school, in each neighborhood, a quality school.

Do this, and parents won’t need to traipse across town to feel good about the education their kids receive. School-neighborhood bonds will grow. Parents will understand the true meaning of community.

The San Diego Unified school board likes this idea so much that six years ago, they made it their driving mission. Then they recruited an idealistic elementary school principal, Cindy Marten, who they thought could deliver the dream.

The thing about ideals, though, is that once you start reaching for them, and breaking out the parts you need to accomplish, a mess of uncomfortable crap usually spills to the floor. Which is about where the district is right now.

San Diego neighborhoods are segregated by race and socioeconomic status. Thus, if students all stayed local and went to their neighborhood school, those schools would also be segregated.

We pointed to this over a year ago when parents in La Jolla – which has some of the most coveted schools – made it even tougher for kids from outside the area to opt in. This issue isn’t unique to San Diego.

The problem is both philosophical and legal. The district is also bound by a court order.

In 1977, as an outcome of Carlin v. Board of Education, the district created an integration plan. The district made progress, and in 1985 the court allowed San Diego Unified to integrate voluntarily, so long as it promised to keep up integration efforts. Magnet schools were part of this plan.

Recently, the school board held an information session about the future of magnets and where they fit into the district’s plan to keep kids in their neighborhood schools.

One question trustee Richard Barrera asked during that meeting is particularly timely.

Question: What’s the difference between a magnet school and a non-magnet school? – Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified trustee

Barrera most likely already knew the answer to this question and was asking for the sake of discussion. That said, trustees had a lot of questions during that meeting – magnet schools are interesting animals.

When kids first start school, they’re automatically routed to their local neighborhood school. That school, along with nearby schools, falls within a cluster. Elementary schools feed into the cluster middle schools, then the cluster high school.

That’s the typical path for kids whose parents don’t look for other options. If those neighborhood schools are good, parents from elsewhere may want to opt their kids into them. But those seats are limited and filled first by kids within its boundaries. There’s no guarantee kids from outside can get in.

Magnets, on the other hand, have open boundaries. That is, enrollment is open to kids from all neighborhoods. These schools are often built around specialized themes like Mandarin or music or science and tech.

In some ways, magnets look and act like charter schools, but that are operated by the district.

Once a school is designated a magnet by the district, it’s monitored by the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to make sure it’s helping the district to meet diversity goals.

The hope was magnet themes would be so attractive and unique that parents from all over would want to opt their kids into them and that schools would, as a result, become more diverse.

If the number of kids applying to the school outnumbers the seats, enrollment is decided by a weighted lottery that factors in parents’ socioeconomic statuses and neighborhood. Interestingly, federal rules prohibit schools from using race as a factor in admission – the very thing they’re trying to account for.

Until around 2010, additional funding went to magnet schools, which may have been an incentive to create more of them. But that year, the same time the district slashed its transportation budget, magnet funding dried up.

It was a double-whammy for magnet schools: They had less money to make their programs work, and fewer students who had means of getting to their school.

Demographic data from this year shows many magnets have simply failed to diversify schools.

Take a look at the list the district compiled: Joyner Elementary, in City Heights, is 80 percent Latino. Johnson Elementary, in Emerald Hills, is 42 percent black – both well over district averages.

Of course, the homogenous racial makeup isn’t a problem on its own. But it defeats what was supposed to be the purpose of magnet schools in the first place – creating diverse student bodies.

That’s why the school board is talking about “demagnetizing” some of these and taking them off the list of schools monitored by the Office of Civil Rights. This might not help diversity, but boundaries would be drawn around the school and students would be funneled in.

There’s some federal funding available, for which the district is preparing a grant that would go to three schools in Linda Vista. Why these schools? Because they meet the grant criteria, and because they feed into Kearny High School, also a magnet.

Kearny is actually perfectly diverse; it about mirrors district demographics. But it pulls students from all over – which doesn’t jibe with the neighborhood schools plan the district has in mind.

District leaders are realizing how complicated it is trying to make magnet schools fit with Vision 2020, the big plan for which neighborhood schools is the centerpiece.

Trustee Kevin Beiser summarized the problem with one long statement at the meeting:

“This I think points to the challenge we have with the emphasis on going to your local neighborhood school – it may result in you going to school with no diversity in the student body. Not that that’s good or bad or indifferent, but if that’s the case, if all kids are going to their neighborhood school, and the school is 80 percent African-American, or 80 percent Hispanic or 80 percent Caucasian, that’s Vision 2020. The Vision 2020 is go to your local neighborhood school, and nothing in Vision 2020 suggests that we want to talk about or have a conversation about the diversity make-up of that residential neighborhood and that neighborhood school.”

Ed Reads of the Week

• California’s madness, in one chart (CNN)

CNN took data from 40 states, charting how much each spends educating kids versus how much it spends incarcerating individuals. The disparity is ugly everywhere, but in California – it’s jaw-dropping. We spend less than $10,000 to educate a kid, per year – and nearly $50,000 to lock them up.

• ‘Reclassification’: One piece of jargon worth understanding (New America)

Conor Williams, of New America Ed, is one of the smartest dudes I know when it comes to English-learners. If this is a topic you care about, you should follow his work.

Here he takes a look at reclassification standards for English-learners, which is wonky but important. When students are non-native English speakers, they’re classified as English-learners. The expectation is that they’ll improve a bit every year, until they test out, or “reclassify,” as fluent.

This is the central balance schools try to strike in educating English-learners: Focus too heavily on language practice, and students will fall behind academically. Provide too little language support, and students will get lost.

Once students reclassify as fluent, they’ll have access to a broader, college-going curriculum – so it makes sense to keep track of how, and when this is happening. The problem is that in California, this process is not uniform across school districts. One district may have higher reclassification standards than others. This is especially troublesome for students who move around.

Williams’ post isn’t so much an argument for the specific moment when reclassification should happen, but a call for state lawmakers to set more uniform standards for English-learners, so we have better research to see where exactly that moment is. (See how Kearny High supports its English-learners.)

• Black Lives Matter owes you nothing (Jose Vilson)

An interesting tension has crept in between teachers unions and activists at the head of the Black Lives Matter movement. In short, teachers unions don’t like the fact that some BLM leaders were also educators for Teach for America, and suggest the movement is really a kind of Trojan Horse for school reformers.

One teacher, Jose Vilson, doesn’t like being asked to choose between two groups he supports:

 “The historical amnesia is astounding at best. Even a cursory reading of the history of public schools would lead the reader to conclude that people of color have disproportionately gotten the rawest end of the deal in our schools. …

In the swinging pendulum between who controls schooling, people of color have rarely had agency. …

If there was a faux choice between the movement for black lives and the movement to save public schools, I would choose the first.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a photo of Memorial Prep and identified it as a magnet school. It is no longer a magnet school.

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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