Five years after San Diego Unified made quality neighborhood schools its No. 1 priority, those schools aren’t holding on to any more kids than they did when the effort began, a new report shows.

The San Diego Unified school board set a goal in 2011 that would come to define its big, overarching vision for the decade: By the year 2020, every neighborhood will have a quality school.

One way to measure that: More students would choose their closest neighborhood schools instead of opting into schools in other neighborhoods. The district would not end the choice program, which allows students to attend schools farther away from their homes. Rather, neighborhood schools would become so attractive that parents would want their kids to attend.

That was the hope. But a new study from University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law shows 42 percent of parents across the district choose to send their kids to schools outside their neighborhoods. That’s about the same percentage of students as 2011.

Meanwhile, a growing number of families have opted instead for charter schools. This year about 18 percent of the district’s students attend charter schools, according to the study, and that number has steadily risen in the past five years. (Charter schools are not considered neighborhood schools, though they can serve kids living in the surrounding neighborhood.)

Now the school board and district staff members are devising plans to reverse the trends. They’re looking to spend bond money building new schools, renovating old ones and adding more online courses to capture a growing share of the market.

But the 2020 deadline doesn’t give the district much time to let those measures take hold.

Who Chooses to Leave

To appreciate the district’s challenge, you have to understand the element of parent choice.

Any parent can choose to send their children to schools outside of their neighborhood, space permitting. Certain students, like those coming from schools that have struggled to make academic progress under federal standards, get preference for which schools like they’d to attend.

For decades, this has created a mostly one-way migration from schools in the south and east to schools in the north and west.

By 2011, parents and district leaders began to chafe at the assumption that students had to leave their neighborhoods in order to get a quality education.

So the board crafted the plan called Vision 2020 – a sweeping blueprint for how the district would put a quality school in every neighborhood.

They started by defining 12 elements of a quality schools – things like quality teachers, strong leadership and a high neighborhood attendance rate. (In a presentation this year, district staff members said the goal for quality schools was to enroll at least 80 percent of all the students from the neighborhood.)

Keeping kids close to home is an easier choice for parents who live in La Jolla. Nearly 95 percent of age-appropriate students who live within the boundaries of Muirlands Middle school in La Jolla choose to attend their neighborhood school. More than 90 percent of neighborhood students go on to attend La Jolla High, the high school Muirlands feed into.

Contrast that with Lincoln High, 20 miles to La Jolla’s southeast. There, 72 percent of all students leave the Lincoln cluster by the time they get to high school.

It’s a similar story in Logan Heights. Last year, 80 percent of families chose avoid their neighborhood school, Memorial Prep. It is the most avoided school in the district.

District staff members have not responded to questions about the CEPAL study. But a report they presented in January shows they use a different method for calculating attendance rates – their method gives higher averages of those attending neighborhood schools than those listed in the CEPAL report.

The district’s method focuses on “clusters” – groups of elementary and middle schools that feed into a high school. There are 16 clusters in San Diego Unified, divided by geographic boundaries. Individual schools also have boundaries, which determine where students will be pulled from.

If students do not attend their assigned school, but attend a school within the cluster, the district still counts them as attending a neighborhood school.

CEPAL researchers, on the other hand, defined “neighborhood school” as the ones students are assigned.

Julie Cramer, a senior research associate at USD and lead author on the study, said calculating rates this way more accurately illustrates the choice parents are making: choosing to send their kids to any school other than the assigned neighborhood school.

Besides, Cramer said, the district set out on a plan to create a quality school in every neighborhood – which isn’t the same as a quality school in every cluster.

To Close or Not to Close

According to the study, the biggest drop in neighborhood attendance rates happens between elementary school and middle school. That is, many parents send their children to nearby elementary schools, but look for other options as they enter middle school.

While the rates are mostly flat across clusters, the Mission Bay cluster improved its attendance rates by closing a neighborhood school, Bayview Terrace Elementary. Neighborhood attendance rates at Bayview remained low, so closing it improved the average.

The district might be able to close the attendance gap in other clusters if it closed more poorly attended schools.

Closing schools, however, is profoundly controversial. Between 2005 and 2011, confronted with a looming budget deficit and shrinking enrollment districtwide, the school board explored the possibility of closing various schools as a cost-saving measure. In most cases, trustees changed their minds after parents and teachers protested.

Trustee Richard Barrera said he’s deeply skeptical of the proposed benefits of school closures.

“I think closing a school is always going to be an option of last resort. We know that this kind of magic bullet approach – close down schools and send kids to ‘better’ schools – is a false notion. All you’re doing is eliminating options for kids,” Barrera said.

Trustee John Lee Evans said he hasn’t seen the CEPAL study, but agrees that neighborhood school attendance has been mostly flat in the last five years. Evans said it’s too early to see the results of the work that’s been under way.

“It is important to not come to a premature judgment. We would not have a goal to have high-quality schools in every neighborhood by 2020 if we believed that we were already there,” Evans said.

New Facilities, Better Marketing

The district is looking to stave off further loss of its students, in large part, by investing bond money in poorly attended schools, hoping new facilities and programs will draw students back to the neighborhoods.

In Logan Heights, for example, the district is planning to raze and rebuild the Memorial Prep campus for upward of $100 million.

There’s some evidence that parents choose schools, at least in part, based on the quality of a school’s facility. But it’s impossible not to consider that just nine years ago, the district rebuilt Lincoln High’s campus for $129 million and today the school is severely under-enrolled.

Moving forward, the district is also looking to convert high school libraries into resource centers where students can take online classes for remediation or independent studies, because “that’s where the market is,” said David Vande Pol, the district’s new director of online learning.

District officials hope the resource centers will also serve as welcome centers for parents looking for information about the schools.

And the district hopes to highlight all of these efforts with improved marketing that showcases what neighborhood schools have to offer. Last year, the district coined a new slogan to bolster the effort: Rediscover San Diego Unified schools.

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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