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Big changes might be coming to San Diego High, San Diego’s oldest school. In front of voters this November could be a proposal to extend the high school’s lease or boot it from the location it’s had since 1882.

The school’s location might have been a constant for the past 134 years. But educationally, the school has been radically restructured, and restructured again, just in the past 15 years.

About 10 years ago, incentivized by funding from the Gates Foundation, district officials divided the campus into six small schools. It was part of a larger movement driven by the belief that breaking large high schools into smaller, autonomous ones – the so-called school-within-a-school model – would create more effective, personalized learning environments.

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San Diego High accepted the challenge, along with Kearny and Crawford highs. Those experiments had very mixed results in San Diego. Of the three, Kearny has made the most convincing case the model can work. One of Kearny’s small schools, the School of International Business, has been particularly effective for English-learners who often struggle at other schools. Crawford dropped the idea altogether in 2012 and returned to a traditional school.

All three schools faced serious challenges, namely, how to support the small-school model financially when Gates’ funding ran out.

For San Diego High, the main problem has been how to deal with the common but rarely discussed problem of inter-school segregation.

“The challenge at San Diego High has really been an equity challenge,” said Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified school board trustee. “How do we have high expectations for everyone at the school?”

San Diego High’s School of International Studies offers an International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum that attracts high-performing students. In 2014, the School of International Studies was named the 22nd best high school in California and one of the top 200 in the nation.

But that success hasn’t been shared by other programs on campus. Due to lagging enrollment and underperformance, three of the six original programs have been shuttered.

One parent, whose son thrived within the small school model, wants to know what happened at San Diego High.

Question: What has gone wrong, and what has gone right at San Diego High in the past 15 years? (I paraphrased this question.)  – Laurie Black, reader

The best case for what’s gone right at San Diego High is the School of International Studies. That school continues to act as a magnet for high-performing students in central San Diego neighborhoods. For years, more students wanted into the school than it had seats.

If students earn an IB diploma – which not everyone does, because it’s very challenging – they can enter universities with college credits already in the bag.

But the thing that’s gone right at San Diego High is directly related to what’s gone wrong.

That is, while the high-performing students opt into the School of International Studies, other schools on the campus have higher concentrations of students from low-income families, students of color and English-learners. And for several years there wasn’t much collaboration between the schools, even though they shared the same campus.

“The other schools on the campus are not high-performing schools, it’s true, but they have nothing to do with our school. They may as well be miles away from School of International Studies at San Diego High. You should no more lump our school in with those than with any other school in San Diego County – they have nothing to do with one another,” one mother wrote last year.

Barrera said this is the result of a kind of self-selected segregation, one that had been reinforced by the structure of the school.

Students choose which school they’ll enter as incoming freshmen. Students from upper-income families – or those coming out of elementary and middle schools with IB programs – might see the School of International Studies as a welcome challenge. Students from low-income families, on the other hand, might assume they’re not smart enough for IB, and select one of the less rigorous schools.

The most extreme example of racial isolation might be the School of Communications, which was envisioned as a program that would improve language skills for students who were still learning English. Over time, though, the school grew increasingly segregated. In other words, a school that started as a school for English-learners became a school of English-learners – and a severely underperforming one at that.

“It was a school that was designed to fail,” Barrera said in 2011, not long before it was closed. Since then, two others have also been shut down.

Tensions also rose from the simple fact multiple schools had to compete for resources. In 2011, then-Superintendent Bill Kowba sent word down that four of the schools would have to share a principal. The School of International Studies, however, got its own.

“If they deserve one principal, so do we,” one student at the School of Science and Technology said at the time.

Today, a major piece of the work taking place on campus is undoing the results of the past inequities and creating a single identity for San Diego High.

Last year, Superintendent Cindy Marten tasked Carmen Garcia, a former principal of Roosevelt Middle School, with leading the work at the three remaining schools on campus. Instead of three principals operating autonomously, Garcia is now the head principal who oversees the work of three vice principals on campus.

In the past year, Garcia has expanded access to the School of International Studies so more students could get in. That’s made the School of International Studies a little more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. She’s also focused on what she calls a kind of “cross pollination” that allows students to take courses in other schools.

She’s expanded access to AVID, an in-school preparatory program for college-bound students. In the past, only students from International Studies got AVID. Starting next year, all students will have it, she said.

Garcia, the children of immigrants and a former English-learner, said her mission is steeped in personal experience. Her goal is to support the International Studies program so it can continue, and prepare more students to benefit from it.

“I’ve lived what these students are going through. I was an immigrant, an English-learner – the kind of student who’s too often discarded,” Garcia said.

Of course, it will take time to see the degree to which Garcia can be successful. The problems at San Diego High are the result of years-long structure that didn’t support all students on campus. And it will take more than a year to resolve them.

But in a several important ways, San Diego High is in a better position than it was 15 years ago. Today, IB programs exist at the elementary and middle school levels. That means that more students coming into the school will be prepared for the School of International Studies.

And, more generally, district officials are talking more about connecting students’ elementary, middle and high school experiences so they work as a natural continuum. That could mean, over time, that students going into San Diego High’s other programs are also better prepared.

If Garcia is successful, a single, functioning high school will grow out of a fractured campus.

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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