In 1977, a Superior Court judge found 23 San Diego Unified schools to be so racially isolated they deprived black and Latino students’ equal rights to a quality education. He ordered the district to desegregate its schools.

Nearly 40 years later, with one possible exception, Latino and black students are isolated at every school left on the original list.

Six of those schools have since closed, been combined with another or converted to charter schools. Even those that restructured made little progress in terms of racial integration.

At 20 schools, 70 percent of the student body consist of black and Latino students. Five schools approach a level of racial isolation so severe that Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, refers to them as “apartheid schools.” These are schools where nearly every student is non-white.

The district’s strategic plan for the future – called Vision 2020 – may make that worse.

The plan is an effort to create a quality school in every neighborhood so students don’t have to leave their local schools to get a good education. San Diego neighborhoods, however, are segregated by race and class. So if students stayed at local schools, those would remain segregated, too.

In recent years the district has scaled back its integration efforts. Fewer and fewer students have been provided free transportation – thereby cutting out a critical component of implementing what experts consider a fair school choice plan.

In the 2010-2011 school year, the district was running 2,300 routes, and transporting 17,500 students daily. This year, it’s running 1,500 routes and transporting 11,000 students daily.

Magnet schools – which have helped integration efforts – play a relatively small role in the district’s Vision 2020 plan.

In an October school board meeting, trustee Richard Barrera argued integration efforts like busing and school choice have actually made district schools more segregated.

When school choice options are offered, he said, parents who are already engaged are those most likely to send their kids to other schools. The students then left behind are not only segregated by race, language and class, but also are least likely to have engaged, resourced parents.

“And that, I think, has always been the biggest challenge in our district: How do we improve, make progress in schools where that’s the definition of kids who are going to that school,” Barrera said.

Barrera isn’t the only one to zero in on this issue. Back in July, Councilman David Alvarez first spoke publicly about the possibility of tearing down Memorial Prep, a middle school in Logan Heights, and building a new one.

Memorial made the list of segregated schools back in 1977. It has since become the school most avoided by neighborhood parents. At the time, when I asked Alvarez his take on how Memorial got to this point, his points paralleled Barrera’s argument.

“Oftentimes, the only [parents] who remain (at a school), are those unfortunately who don’t understand the system or how to give their children opportunities at other schools,” Alvarez said. “Therefore you have sort of this really vicious cycle where you’re taking out all the talent from the community and you’re leaving the hardest to serve.”

Within Alvarez’s response, you see several efforts district officials have taken instead of integration: They’ve rebuilt and rebranded schools (like Lincoln); restructured programs or flooded a school with resources.

Some of these efforts have had positive results, academically. Others haven’t.

Test scores at Lincoln High are still among the worst for district high schools. The summer program at Chollas-Mead Elementary, another school on the list, has had a positive impact on students’ reading levels.

Freese Elementary, one school that was converted to a magnet, has in recent years made progress both in terms of racial integration and academic performance.  (Still, three-quarters of its students are black or Latino).

The only school on the original list that’s been able to strike a semblance of ethnic balance is Morse High.

Interestingly, the balance doesn’t come from white students, but from a high number of Filipino students, who make up the largest subgroup. A large portion of Filipino students have also tended to graduate meeting UC and CSU entrance requirements.

Overall, the needle hasn’t moved on diversity at these schools in 40 years. Now, the plan is to make every school good, segregation notwithstanding.

Neighborhood schooling, the direction the district is now headed, sounds appealing in a nostalgic, Rockwellian sort of way. Parents like the thought of sending their kids to a local school down the street.

By 2011, around the time school board started drafting the Vision 2020 plan, some black and Latino parents were starting to chafe at the notion they had to pack their kids into cars and buses and send them across town just to get a quality education. Neighborhood schooling seemed the better option.

“The idea used to be, get poor kids of color into the ‘good schools,’” Barrera said at the time. “Then you look up and say, ‘Wait a second, why are there good schools and bad schools?’”

The problem is that there’s no evidence that says neighborhood schooling actually works, said Orfield. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to say that it doesn’t.

“I can’t tell you how many hundreds of places I’ve been to or that have sent to me a beautiful glossy plan that says ‘We know how to make segregated schools equal.’ It’s usually called ‘The Plan for Excellence’ or ‘The Intense Focus Plan’ or something. It’s a different name in every town,” said Orfield.

“Everybody says they know how to do it. Everybody says they know how to make segregated schools equal. But no school district in the country has ever done it, to the best of my knowledge.”

Less Incentive to Desegregate

It’s no accident that every school on the original list of 23 is located in a southeastern San Diego neighborhood.

A root cause of segregated schools is segregated housing. And for years, due to discrimination and explicit restrictions, this was the only part of San Diego in which black families could settle.

Latinos have since become the largest ethnic group in southeastern neighborhood schools. In fact, Latinos now make up the biggest share of students in the district, at 47 percent. Less than a quarter of the district’s students are white (black students make up 9 percent; Asian students, 8 percent).

Integration efforts, like busing, were intended to break the bond between a student’s neighborhood and school.

And it worked – for a little while.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for New York Times Magazine, argued in a recent episode of “This American Life” that integration was the one effort that proved effective in terms of closing the academic achievement gap between white students and black and Latino children. But it’s the also the one effort that few school districts are now willing to talk about.

Orfield chalks that up, in part, to a series of Supreme Court decisions that dismantled many districts’ desegregation plans. The Emergency School Aid Act, federal money that went to assist integration plans, was eliminated in 1981.

Over the years, districts have had much less incentive to desegregate, so they did less of it. But that’s different than saying integration failed.

“The Supreme Court has pushed us backwards in this area,” Orfield said. “It’s no accident that we’re where we are now.”

How Test Scores Play Out

The biggest reason researchers like Orfield are concerned about diversity has much less to do with striking a racial balance for the sake of numbers – and much more do with the disadvantage often attached to race. That is, race, poverty and language are so often connected.

When we talk about “students of color” in this conversation, we’re talking more specifically about black and Latino students – those most likely to face disadvantages from the time they enter school to the time they leave.

Resegregating California, a report Orfield co-wrote, shows that students who attend schools where black and Latino students make up the majority tend to do worse academically. Where poverty is concentrated, impact is compounded. Because black and Latino students often enter schools at a disadvantage, their curriculums are more likely to be watered down.

On the other hand, schools with white and Asian majorities post better test scores, have more experienced teachers and offer a stronger curriculum, according to the report.

At Lincoln High, for example, which is 88 percent Latino and black students, only 32 percent of seniors graduated with courses required to get into UC and CSU schools in 2014.

This fall, when the state released results of the first test tied to the new Common Core State Standards, 86 percent of Lincoln students failed to meet standards in math.

That pattern held forth for nearly every school on the original list of racially isolated schools. Most scored below district and state averages in math. The only exceptions were The O’Farrell Charter School, and Freese Elementary, a magnet school that tied the state average.

By contrast, at Scripps Ranch High 65 percent of students are white or Asian. There 80 percent of seniors were prepared for college. Sixty-one percent of students met or exceeded standards on the math portion of the new Common Core tests. The state and district averages were 34 and 41 percent, respectively.

Transportation and Access

Nothing magical happens when you seat black kids next to white kids. But when you take kids from a majority black and Latino school, and put them in a majority white and Asian school, they have access to a better curriculum and a more competitive peer group.

Orfield said keys to a successful integration plan include offering free transportation (which the district slashed in 2011), and making sure all parents have equal access to information about choice options.

For principals and teachers, it means welcoming “choice” kids into new schools and integrating them into the program. A common argument against busing is that black or Latino students move to a new school in a new neighborhood, but end up segregating themselves by ethnic group once they arrive.

Research shows that can be avoided if administrators thoughtfully place students into the right classes, with the right mix of students – a lot like what principals have been able to do at Kearny High.

But what about busing and transportation? I asked Orfield. Those things feel uncomfortable.

“It is uncomfortable! There’s no comfortable way to get out of a racial catastrophe. But it works. And people appreciate it when it’s done well,” Orfield said. “Desegregation done the right way is a win-win. It’s not taking something from somebody and giving it to somebody else. It’s expanding the opportunity and preparation of everybody. It’s not a miracle. It’s not a cure-all. It’s just a whole lot better than segregation.”

Nasha Fitter and Anna Griffel of Schoolie contributed data analysis to this report.

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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