Parents in North Park have uncovered a hidden secret – our neighborhood schools are awesome.

We have great teachers, responsive and receptive principals and the opportunity to be strong partners in our children’s education. And I bet the same the same is true for the majority of the schools in the San Diego Unified

So why wouldn’t families choose a good neighborhood school and avoid all the craziness that comes with long commutes and losing hours of family and fun time?

A big part of the problem is perception. For those parents who’ve automatically bypassed their neighborhood school without giving it a good look first, I’d say this: Don’t believe everything you hear, go and see what is really happening at your neighborhood school and know that if it’s not perfect, your personal involvement can make a good school great.

My family moved to North Park in 2003, when my daughter was 2 years old. I remember the Realtor warning us that although North Park is a great neighborhood the neighborhood school, McKinley Elementary, did not have a great reputation and we may want to consider choicing into another school.

Three years later, I found myself applying to more schools for my daughter’s kindergarten than I did when I was applying for law school. We applied to all the high-performing schools.

It was exhausting.

But walking my dog by McKinley every day, I watched the kids on the playground and they seemed so happy and well-behaved. I kept thinking, So what’s wrong with this school?

I looked at the school’s stats: 400 students; the standardized tests were in the mid-700s (not great, but not bad either).

The numbers didn’t immediately draw me in, but we went on the school tour and met the principal. She was fantastic. I learned that the school had an International Baccalaureate program, which brings together the best teaching practices from around the world. I started thinking: Wow, this is amazing. It’s free and we can walk three blocks to school.

Why, then, was the school was getting such a bad rap? I asked the principal if it was OK to spend time in the classrooms. She said yes, so I planted myself in the various classrooms and liked what I saw.

The teachers had great classroom control. Most importantly to me, the teachers didn’t let the kids sit there and be passive learners.

We were still torn between a one of the language-immersion schools and the neighborhood school but we opted for the neighborhood school because we liked the idea of being able to walk to the school and get to know the families in the neighborhood. Because I worked at home, I also knew I could actually help out in the school.

Today, McKinley is held up as a model for the district’s Quality Neighborhood Schools initiative. McKinley now has over 600 students, test scores have risen dramatically, families are moving into the neighborhood because of the schools and parent involvement has exploded.

Folks often ask me how the school turned around. The answer is that the school didn’t really change. The same great teachers who are there today were there when we started looking.

So what did change? Parents showed up and stepped up. We became full partners with the principal and the school board in making major decisions for our school. We greatly expanded our parent-teacher club and organized interested parents into different tasks – while teachers, staff and classroom volunteers focused on helping our kids succeed academically, parents initiated and/or raised funds for a more expanded arts and music program, a Spanish program, after-school enrichment programs and even a theater troupe.

When the budget cuts hit, we worked with the school district’s board to retain the IB program. We also worked with the district and the city to develop a joint-use park at the school and to change our school hours so elementary school and middle school start times were not an hour and a half apart.

And it was all done by working parents.

It isn’t always easy to accept some district decisions, but because we work in partnership, we can at least understand why certain decisions are made. Bottom line: These are our tax dollars supporting the schools, and parents do have a strong say in how those dollars should be spent.

Another thing we parents did was start marketing the school. We knew that the IB program was a good fit for our community (other communities emphasize performing arts, science, tech or language-immersion programs, etc.) and we wanted to show the district that the IB program was bringing neighborhood kids to the school.

We started marketing McKinley as a “neighborhood school with a global view” and even hosted a Realtors’ breakfast so they could see how great the school is. We also set up a parent-teacher club website and newsletter. We increased our neighborhood participation rate from about half to about 70 percent.

Parents at McKinley have also actively engaged our larger community. We hold local pizza night fundraisers, market all the local businesses that support the school, and hold an annual “SoNo Chili Fest” where over 40 restaurants and breweries show off their food and beers to over 9,000 San Diegans while raising money for the school. Local businesses feel connected to their community school and the families repay them with their patronage. Our community is much stronger today because of how involved we’ve all become in our local school.

Parents at Birney Elementary and Jefferson Elementary have had similar successes, and this is now starting to transfer up to Roosevelt Middle School.

My family is so grateful for the quality education my daughter received at McKinley (and now at Roosevelt). Because we stayed in the neighborhood, we had more time together as a family and became great friends with our neighbors. Those community connections have truly made our lives far richer and have greatly contributed to the North Park renaissance of the past few years.

If parents are on the fence as to where to send their kids to school, I say give your neighborhood school a try. If the school provides a quality education for your child, even if it is not everything you want, take the leap. There are always trade-offs. But think about your family’s quality-of-life issues and all that you can contribute to make the school better. What a great lesson to teach your child: how to change the world one neighborhood at a time.

Sandy Weiner-Mattson lives in Golden Hill and is a former parent leader at McKinley Elementary and Roosevelt Middle School.

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