McKinley Elementary is aggressively cute.

It’s a neighborhood school in the most classic sense – a school connected to the surrounding community, and the community to it. Kids walk or ride bikes through North Park and South Park on their way to school. Parents are rumored to hang out with one another outside of school functions.

“McKinley is like a throwback to the ‘60s,” said its principal, Deb Ganderton.

There’s nothing particularly fancy about its outward appearance. Walk in, and the place still has that schoolhouse smell of sawdust and warm crayons. But the atmosphere is somehow hipper and more vibrant.

Down a hallway you’ll find the teacher’s lounge – recently renovated by a robust parent-teacher club. Home Depot donated the hardwood floors, and parents installed it. With the wooden tables one dad made, the lounge looks a bit like an IKEA kitchen display.

Past the library, stuffed with books and staffed every day, doors open into a courtyard with flowers tended by parent-members of McKinley’s beautification team.

A parent-led school foundation raises extra funds for the school with galas and chili cook-offs. On top of donating and raising money, McKinley parents have plenty of ways to volunteer at school. Betsey Zbyszynski, head of the parent committee, put together a 12-page guide so parents know the options.

Academically, McKinley test scores land solidly in the district’s upper tier and the school offers the prestigious International Baccalaureate program.

Word about the school has gotten out. Last year, it could only accept 32 of the 114 applicants who wanted to come here from other neighborhoods.

It’s hard to believe that just 10 years ago, McKinley was the school the neighborhood parents avoided. In 2006, enrollment dipped so low that district officials considered closing it down.

Since then, school board trustee Richard Barrera has pointed to McKinley as the quintessential story of what can happen when a group of parents decides to reclaim their neighborhood school.

But McKinley is more than that. It’s also the story of a school transforming amid a changing neighborhood.

And if the two are related, it’s worth exploring what that means for schools in blighted neighborhoods – schools that urgently need change but can’t afford to wait for gentrification to happen. Or whether it’s even really possible to turn around a school without changing the surrounding community.

‘That Was the Moment That Really Galvanized Us’

In 2008, the night Barrera was elected to school board, he got a call from Sandy Weiner-Mattson, whose child attended McKinley.

“Sandy calls me and says, ‘Hey, Richard. Congratulations on your election win, that’s really good. Now can you get over to McKinley? We’ve got a situation here,’” Barrera recalled.

The Great Recession had just hit, and former Superintendent Terry Grier was looking to shave costs. On the chopping block was McKinley’s IB program, which requires additional teachers and costs about $150,000 more per year than a traditional elementary school.

The McKinley community panicked. Opening an IB program takes years of work, teachers log hours of additional training. The program was just getting up and running.

Not to mention, Julie Ashton-Gray, then McKinley’s principal, had spent years trying to convince neighborhood parents to give McKinley a try.

“I knew if I lost parents then, they’d leave and never come back,” said Ashton-Gray.

Weiner-Mattson remembers Ashton-Gray in tears: “She looked at me and said, ‘We have to do something. We can’t let this go without a fight.’”

Weiner-Mattson said it was a turning point.

“That was the moment that really galvanized us as a community of parents,” she said. “We knew if we wanted to keep the program alive we were going to have to raise the money ourselves.”

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The school had always had an active Parent Teacher Association, but with a PTA, schools have to share a cut of what they raise with the larger PTA organization. School foundations, however, allow parents to raise and keep more money. So they started one.

School foundations, nonprofits usually run by parents, are meant to pay for the extras at schools, like playground equipment or enrichment opportunities. You’re more likely to see them in affluent neighborhoods in La Jolla and Scripps Ranch.

At McKinley, they started small, raising about $12,000 a year. Last year, they raised over $120,000.

And they need that money. If they want to continue the programs they’ve come to love, they’re going to have to fund them themselves.

IB programs require ongoing training and planning time for staff members. For the past several years, McKinley parents have footed the bill.

If the foundation disappeared, or if parents didn’t continue to raise funds, the IB program would suffer.

“Absolutely,” said Ganderton. “It would have a major impact.”

Luckily for McKinley, the parents moving into the surrounding neighborhoods are more affluent than families 15 years ago.

Gentrification: New Opportunity, New Challenge

The neighborhood where North Park and South Park meet is a place where you can easily grab a craft beer, cold brew coffee or chia seed pudding. The kind where, on a Sunday morning, you’ll see young couples out walking dogs or pushing strollers.

Over the last 15 years, as McKinley transformed, so did the neighborhood around it.

Gentrification is a hot topic, one that’s frequently debated but difficult to measure. But the story follows a familiar pattern: as cheap and trendy neighborhoods become increasingly attractive, more businesses and affluent families move in, and housing prices shoot upward. Tension typically arises from concerns that rising housing costs will displace longtime residents.

At McKinley, these forces play out on a micro level. Between 2006 and 2015, as test scores rose, the school was also becoming whiter and more affluent. The percentage of white students doubled, from 20 percent to 40 percent. The number of students eligible for free lunch dropped from 77 percent to 41 percent.

The new makeup might sound like a direct result of incoming families, but Census data shows the racial makeup of the neighborhoods surrounding McKinley didn’t actually change that much between 2000 and 2010. The neighborhood stayed close to 60 percent white, 25 percent Latino and 5 percent black.

The more significant change in the neighborhood may be related to soaring housing costs. In 2000, median home prices in South Park ranged from $180,000 to $225,000. Today median home prices in the area range from $600,000 to $750,000.

Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute and author of “The Diverse Schools Dilemma,” says gentrification poses both an opportunity and a challenge for schools.

Whereas students from low-income families often start school behind, students from affluent families often start school one or two grade levels ahead of their peers. The concern, then, becomes how to challenge the advanced students while also supporting low-income students.

McKinley found a way to address the issue. Its IB program is rigorous enough to challenge the advanced students, but the increased planning time that’s required of IB teachers allows them to differentiate instruction for students who are behind.

It seems to be working. Between 2006 and 2013, test scores shot up for everyone at the school. That includes black students, Latinos, English-learners and students with disabilities – students who’ve historically lagged behind their peers.

The bigger concern for McKinley is whether low-income families will eventually be priced out of the area. If that happens, the school could become increasingly white and affluent.

“If all of the spots are taken by the more affluent students from the neighborhood, you’ve just essentially flipped the school just like the neighborhood flipped,” Petrilli said.

“You really have to worry about that,” Barrera said.

McKinley might be not be at that point yet, but it does happen. Torrey Pines Elementary, in La Jolla, consistently posts the highest test scores in the district. It’s also one of the whitest and most affluent schools. This past year, the school accepted none of the 63 applications it received from parents in other neighborhoods who wanted to enroll their children.

Essentially, the only way for parents to get their kids into Torrey Pines is to buy into the neighborhood.

The Stars Aligned

Ashton-Gray retired last year, after 14 years at McKinley Elementary. She takes the sort of pragmatic long view that comes with having lived through No Child Left Behind, low test scores and dwindling enrollment – only to turn the school around and go out on top.

Now retired, Ashton-Gray is short and spritely, with the ability to peer into your soul the way only an elementary school principal can.

Back when the school’s test scores were middling, Ashton-Gray promised to go up on McKinley’s roof dressed as a chicken if students made progress. Students made their marks, and Ashton-Gray kept her word. She shimmied up the ladder in the supply closet and tossed candy at the cheering kids below.

Ashton-Gray isn’t taking credit.

“There are just so many things that came together to make that happen. The stars were aligned,” she said.

She points to Weiner-Mattson, who organized parents and played a real role in the turnaround. And she credits Julie Martel, who, when she was principal of Roosevelt Middle School, led the effort to create IB programs at the elementary and middle school levels so students could be prepared for the program at San Diego High.

Around the same time enrollment was at its lowest, Ashton-Gray and principals from nearby Jefferson and Birney elementary schools got a call from Martel, asking if they’d be interested in starting IB programs.

“They were all having the same problems I was,” Martel said. “The schools were in great neighborhoods, close to Balboa Park, but they couldn’t attract their neighborhood families.”

All three principals were convinced IB was the way forward.

Not everyone heralds the arrival of affluent families, Petrilli said. Some principals worry that they’ll lose funding earmarked for low-income kids. And to families who have been at the school for generations, the changes can feel like a hostile takeover. So principals have to have the ability to soothe one set of parents, while promising change to another.

“Let’s be honest. This is really hard. You basically have to have the political skill of a small-town mayor. Those are pretty specific skills, and they might be different than what you’d need as a principal at a high-poverty school.”

But principals can’t do it alone. A transformation also requires parents who truly believe in what the principal is trying to do to take on a kind of spokesperson role and recruit others.

How many devoted parents does it take to turn around a school? There’s no hard number. But Weiner-Mattson says it’s fewer than you might think.

“I think sometimes you only need one or two parents who step up and become leaders. Once you do that, you create momentum and parents start to flock,” she said.

Creating Other McKinleys

McKinley has become an underdog story of a neighborhood school that defied the odds. But the true test might come down to whether it can be replicated elsewhere.

Andy Hinds, a parent who lives in North Park, remembers taking his children to the playground when they were babies. He recalls how none of the parents he met considered Jefferson, their neighborhood school, fit for their kids.

But he also realized something else: None of those people had actually visited the school. When Hinds toured Jefferson, he found an energetic principal and teachers who seemed to actually enjoy what they were doing. He walked into classrooms and saw young students locked onto the teacher’s message, hanging on her words.

“I know how tough it is to keep kids’ attention. And what the teachers were doing looked like magic,” he said.

He thought: There’s no reason Jefferson can’t do the same thing McKinley did.

Indeed, Jefferson has a lot of the same things going for it that McKinley had. The neighborhood surrounding the school has a growing number of affluent parents. Jefferson is also an IB school, so it has a rigorous curriculum to offer. And it has an engaging principal who reaches out to parents and lets them know they have a role to play.

Eventually, like-minded parents joined Hinds. They started their own foundation.

Today, Jefferson is where McKinley was about six years ago. Slowly, parents are starting to come back and get involved.

Hinds writes occasionally for the New York Times’ parenting blog, where he encourages other parents to give their neighborhood schools a good look before dismissing them.

But Hinds is also mindful that the approach he and other Jefferson parents took may not work in every neighborhood.

“I don’t want to give the impression that parents are responsible for a turnaround at Jefferson,” Hinds said. “The school was good and parents went there.”

The fact is, not every school can offer a rigorous IB program. It’s too expensive. And not every parent group has the money or social capital to fundraise.

Stories of similar turnarounds happening at high-poverty schools are rare, but they exist. Before Marten was superintendent, she rose to fame for having organized the City Heights neighborhood around Central Elementary.

More recently, Sherman Elementary in Sherman Heights, has flipped test scores and activated parents with a degree of success remarkable for a school where more than 70 percent of students don’t speak English at home and nearly 100 percent come from low-income families.

Still, trying to define the elements of exactly what makes a school work remains elusive.

Even Ashton-Gray has trouble describing what it was, exactly, that made McKinley work.

“It’s not a recipe or any one thing,” she said. “And describing it like that overlooks the human relationships that really made this whole thing work.”

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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