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In September 1973, my sister and I boarded a yellow school bus and traveled 45 minutes each way from my middle-class San Carlos neighborhood to the “racially isolated” Encanto Elementary School as part of a pilot magnet school program for integration. I was a white fourth grader leaving my neighborhood school for a better education across town in a predominately black and Latino neighborhood.
San Diego Unified is currently talking about a recommitment to neighborhood schools and questioning the magnet school strategy for integration, which has provided students with more school choices outside their neighborhoods for the last 30 years. Some have raised concerns that dismantling the magnet program will impact racially isolated schools that were the focal point of the district’s mandate to integrate following the Carlin case in the late ’60s, which required the district to integrate its schools. The district has already dropped funding for or eliminated other initiatives developed to support student integration such as the camp programs that invited middle-school students from different parts of the city to learn together in an off-campus setting.
But my own experience suggests that integration, including busing kids to better schools that are farther away, can have tremendous positive impacts on students’ lives.
In 1972, my mother spoke before the school board, imploring them to take action toward addressing integration and doing it with intention. She went on to help develop and then manage a pilot voluntary magnet busing program for Encanto Elementary. To build support, she spent countless unpaid hours informing parents throughout the city about what the school could offer their children, suggesting it as an alternative to their neighborhood school.
Encanto in the early ‘70s was a school that benefited from strong leadership. It took advantage of every federal dollar available, providing things that were not standard for the time – programs for gifted and talented students, dual language immersion, a teacher’s aide in every classroom, individualized learning for every student and a media center in addition to a library.
I got on a bus and went across town to get an education I couldn’t get from my local school. I was a beneficiary of parents who had a choice and a school that had access to great resources and used it. It would have been nice to have that in my neighborhood school, but the experience of going outside my neighborhood had educational benefits beyond the academics.
I traveled every day through and to neighborhoods that didn’t look anything like my own. I learned with students who had different lives and lifestyles. Every day on that bus, my world expanded. I learned that there was a city beyond my neighborhood and that “that part of town” wasn’t a foreign country.
I’m not certain that the magnet strategy continues to be today’s solution for school integration. I’m open to new approaches. But if we dismantle the magnet program, currently one of a few intentional efforts the district has left for parents to provide a culturally diverse education for their students, then there must be something meaningful to replace it. Elimination without an alternative is not the answer.
The more these programs are eliminated, the stronger the message becomes that learning to live and work together despite our socioeconomic and ethnic differences is not something we value or prioritize.
I wish I could say that the need to intentionally work toward integrated campuses is an old issue and no longer relevant. Recent headlines remind us almost daily that we’re not yet fluent in our ability to relate well across the racial divide. Given the current national discord about issues of race, ethnicity and who belongs where, I believe that we’re not done with the work we set out to do during the civil rights era.
We should ask ourselves if magnet schools are still the best solution to achieve integrated schools or just a good solution for educational choice in general, worthy of their place in the district’s ecosystem in their own right. And then ask what we can do to ensure every student has an education that supports learning to live together productively in an increasingly integrated society.
Victoria Plettner-Saunders is an arts consultant, creative entrepreneur and lifelong San Diegan. Plettner-Saunders’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.