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As a parent, there’s perhaps no more important (or emotional) decision than choosing a school for your children.

In practical matters, this decision comes down to choosing between your nearest neighborhood school, a charter or private school or a school in a different neighborhood.

For many parents, it’s a question of competing values. They might recognize the need to support their community, and see schools as the heartbeat of neighborhoods. On the other hand, they want their kids to attend whatever school fits best. And that school may not be the one closest to home.

For the past five years, San Diego Unified has been on a mission to show parents they don’t have to leave the neighborhood for a quality education.

A new study we wrote about this week, however, shows that the district’s efforts haven’t yet improved the numbers: This year, about 42 percent of students in San Diego Unified attend schools other than the ones they were assigned – roughly the same percentage of students who made the same choice in 2011.

This point might seem flat and academic if, five years ago, district officials had not made high neighborhood-school attendance rates one important measure for how well schools are doing.

To be sure, student enrollment is a layered topic, complicated by demographic trends and perceptions that have built up over decades.

But how to attract parents back to neighborhood school is a question that matters.

One reason it matters is because it affects where the district spends school bond funds. District officials announced in November plans to spend north of $100 million razing and rebuilding Memorial Prep’s campus in an effort to bring more students back to the neighborhood.

And Memorial Prep is just one school. San Diego Unified will spend millions more on construction and marketing efforts districtwide. Over time, the district’s strategic efforts may take hold. Enrollment at neighborhood schools may start to climb.

But, as a parent – and here comes another competing value – you may not be interested in waiting around for those results. You have a child who needs a good school now.

This week, after we published the neighborhood enrollment numbers, I got an email from a parent.

He was interested in this paragraph that I wrote:

“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.”

He sent me this question:

Question: The students from which schools get preferential treatment in choosing a new school?  Is there a list of these schools?  How do I know if the school my children are assigned to attend is meeting these federal standards? – Aaron, reader and parent

There is indeed a list of schools. A long list of schools.

Those on the list are considered Program Improvement schools, meaning they have failed to make progress, under federal standards, for two years in a row. If students are scheduled to attend one of those schools next year, they’re eligible for priority consideration at schools that are in good standing.

That doesn’t mean students from Program Improvement schools get to attend any school they want. Schools on the list are paired with schools that aren’t. For instance, if your son or daughter is assigned to Memorial Prep, they’d get priority consideration at Muirlands Middle school in La Jolla or Marshall Middle in Scripps Ranch.

How do you know which is your assigned neighborhood school? That one’s easy. Just go to the district’s website and click on the Neighborhood Schools Finder. Type in your address, and voila – you’ll find your assigned neighborhood school. If you see that school on the Program Improvement School Choice list, you’ll be eligible for priority consideration.

If you don’t like your assigned neighborhood school but don’t see it on the list, you can still submit an application to attend another school during the district’s open enrollment period – between Nov. 1 and Feb. 15. It doesn’t matter how early you submit the application, as long as it’s in by the deadline.

You pick your three top schools, complete your application and then wait for a call. If there’s space at your top choice, your child can either attend that school, or stay at the neighborhood school. Same goes for the second and third choices. But there’s no guarantee you’ll get into your favorite schools.

Or, you can forget neighborhood schools altogether and apply to a charter school. That’s an entirely different process that runs parallel to the district’s open-enrollment program. Some charter schools, like High Tech High, get way more applications than they have seats. In those cases, admission is based on a random lottery that draws from different ZIP codes.

Applying to charter schools doesn’t affect the choice application you submit to the district, so some parents play the odds and submit applications to the district and multiple charter schools.

Two important caveats before we close. First, Program Improvement grew from the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law that has since been replaced. Program Improvement is set to sunset this July, but the district will honor the program for next school year. Implications for what it will mean after that are yet to be determined.

Finally, it’s worth noting that simply because a school failed to make progress under federal criteria doesn’t mean it’s a bad school. There are many reasons schools struggle to make progress on test scores – some of those reasons are not all that meaningful for every student.

That’s all to say that before submitting a school choice application, it’s smart to pay a visit to your neighborhood school. Talk with the principal, teachers, other parents. You might be surprised by what you find.

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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