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There’s no more visible marker of a city’s educational vitality than its high school graduation rate, and San Diego Unified has a lot to brag about. Two weeks ago, district officials predicted an all-time high graduation rate – 92 percent. And they’ve done it under more rigorous graduation requirements.

A graduation rate that high tells parents and city leaders that schools in the district are functioning well as one big, connected system. And within it, students are experiencing unprecedented success.

But it also obscures the fact that within that system, schools, parents and students are falling through the cracks. It muddies the fact that the nearly all the schools that were isolated by ethnicity, language and poverty 50 years ago remain segregated today.

These barriers converge on schools like Memorial Prep, a middle school in Logan Heights that 80 percent of neighborhood families avoid. Perception and actual disadvantages come together and keep schools depressed, like a negative feedback loop, year after year.

This isn’t just my take. Trustee Richard Barrera said the same thing last fall, during a school board conversation about the future of magnet schools.

In fact, Barrera took it one step further. The most important challenge the district faces, Barrera said, is how to improve outcomes at schools where “the only kids who go are kids whose parents aren’t making a choice to send them elsewhere. They go to the school because that’s where we tell them the school is. And that creates incredible disparity.”

In other words, parent engagement – or lack of it – creates an additional barrier. One that means students without involved parents face a fourth kind of segregation.

It all paints a pretty dim picture. But more importantly, it begs one critical question: What are we going to do about it?

The Learning Curve 2.0

Decades of research tells us parent involvement is one of the most important factors in a student’s success. But parent involvement can mean a lot of things, from choosing a school to assisting with homework and engaging with teachers. And parents need the tools and information to do it.

Most all of us have had some kind of experience with public schools – whether as students, parents or taxpayers.

Yet, a lot of what school officials say about what’s actually happening in classrooms is shrouded in mystery. Often, traditional education reporters simply repeat official messages and fail to untangle the edu-speak.

In fact, that’s the reason I started The Learning Curve column a year ago. Parents, teachers – anyone – can send in a question, I track down an answer, then explain it in a column.

I think of it as a blend of investigation and education.

Feedback on the column has been good. But with your help, it can be a lot more.

Over the next year, I’ll be bringing a wider variety of stories that will fit under The Learning Curve umbrella. You’re still invited to send in questions, and I’ll still track down answers. This part will not change.

But you’re also going to see different styles of stories. For instance, the most important voice that’s so often missing in education stories belongs to students. So you’re going to hear more from them.

You might notice more explainers tied to recent trends, so you can make sense of, say, how the district explains its booming graduation rate.

And, under the Learning Curve label, I’m also going to tackle meatier questions that might take several weeks or months to answer. Questions like:

• How are schools in San Diego using additional state funding, and is it trickling down to the students who most need it?

• How do struggling neighborhoods go together with struggling schools?

• Can we integrate schools without integrating neighborhoods?

• What does research have to say about the best ways to serve English-learners, and how does that compare to what happens in schools?  What can school districts in San Diego learn from other local districts, or other states?

I’ll have some help on this. This project is supported in part by New America, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington D.C. that weighs in on a wide variety of public policy issues. As a New America California fellow, I’ll be collaborating regularly with the New America’s Dual Language Learner national workgroup, a team that looks at what’s working – and what’s not – when it comes to students for whom English is a second language.

New America and VOSD will keep their editorial processes separate, so our content will be our own. But I’ll have a built-in network of experts whom I can lean on.

And there’s one last piece. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be growing a network of parents, teachers and experts who are interested in improving outcomes for English-learners. People who are willing to be conveners and conversation-starters on an ongoing basis.

Ideally, members of this group will lead conversations about what’s happening at local schools. VOSD will create a Facebook group or a feature on our site where members can share tips and information.

I’ll be helping to create this space where people can share freely. But in order for the group to be sustainable, it should operate on a grassroots level, so it won’t “belong” to me, or VOSD.

I’ll be looking for interested members, but if you or someone you know might be interested, email me at mario.koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

It might sound patronizing to say I need your help. It’s genuine. I will look everywhere for collaborators. There are several organizations that work to recruit and educate parents, for example. These groups would make great partners. I will not try to replicate anything already being done. Instead, I’ll be trying to make allies and bring together those already doing the work.

You might be wondering, what’s in this for VOSD?

Well, better stories, for one. The more contact we make with people in the neighborhoods we write about, the better our sourcing. That benefit is indirect, but it is real.

But more broadly, this isn’t just an effort to connect with families of English-learners, or students in low-income neighborhoods. It’s also about finding an answer to broader questions, like how well we’re adapting as a city or region to an increasingly diverse world.

I’m excited by what we might find and I hope you’ll come along.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

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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