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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Each school is a world unto itself, and all of them are fascinating. If I could, I’d write a profile on every school in San Diego Unified. But it takes a long time to understand what makes a school tick. Even with half a dozen visits to a school, I only get a glimpse.

This year, I took an in-depth look at six schools in San Diego Unified. Each one offers a unique lesson.

McKinley Elementary, in South Park, shows us how changes within a school mirror changes in the surrounding neighborhood. It was a classic turnaround story, with a major assist from an engaging principal and a core group of dedicated parents.

Sherman Elementary in Sherman Heights proves that demographics don’t have to determine a school’s quality. Roughly 70 percent of Sherman’s students are native Spanish-speakers, who often struggle in English-only schools. Principal Eddie Caballero turned that into an asset for the school. At Sherman, English-learners are outperforming their peers in English-only schools. Even more impressive, nearly 100 percent Sherman’s students school qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Lincoln High, in southeastern San Diego, shows us the importance of stability and consistent leadership. Or, more accurately, what can happen if it’s not there. For decades, it’s struggled against the forces of segregation and concentrated poverty. And while officials in Long Beach Unified took a high school with similar students and turned it into its flagship campus, students at Lincoln High remain segregated by race, poverty and language.

One thing that can happen when problems aren’t resolved is that students leave. In southeastern San Diego, a growing number of parents are finding safe harbor at two nearby charter schools: Gompers Preparatory Academy and The O’Farrell Charter School.

Yes, each story is distinct, but when we take a step back, we see common threads. Here’s a look at some of the lessons these schools taught us this year.

School choice is still a driving force.

Parents in San Diego have options. If they don’t want their children to attend the school closest to home, they can choose a magnet school, a charter school or a school in a different neighborhood.

But that can run counter to San Diego Unified’s guiding mission: to create a quality school in every neighborhood. The problem is that there’s no easy way to determine which schools are “quality.” So San Diego Unified created indicators to define it, and one of them is how many students from the surrounding neighborhood a school serves.

Five years into the effort, success is limited. Forty-two percent of parents choose to send their kids to a school outside their neighborhood, roughly the same percentage of parents who opted out of neighborhood schools in 2011, when the district hatched the plan.

The concern is most immediate in southeastern San Diego. There, 70 percent of families opt for charters or schools in other neighborhoods. Despite multiple attempts to restructure and rebrand Lincoln High, its enrollment hovers around 55 percent of capacity. Nearby charter schools are well stocked with neighborhood kids.

But there’s hope for city schools. Both McKinley and Sherman boast successful turnaround stories. Each was able to improve, in part, based on their success attracting and serving neighborhood families.

Charter schools are neighborhood schools, too.

When the school district talks about neighborhood schools, it doesn’t mean charter schools. It’s referring only to the schools it manages.

There’s a practical reason for that. Charter schools have open boundaries, meaning students from any ZIP code can apply to attend. Neighborhood schools serve students from the surrounding area. Only if spots aren’t filled by neighborhood kids can students from other areas enroll.

But Gompers and O’Farrell are complicating those definitions. They’re charter schools, yes, but the vast majority of students they serve come from within a three-mile radius. Leaders at both schools have built relationships with parents and the surrounding community.

Gompers and O’Farrell show the value of having leaders who stick around long enough to create a distinct, schoolwide culture. At both schools, a big part of that culture means getting students to buy into the idea that it’s cool to learn and go to college. Students at both schools benefit from continuity and alignment between grade levels. (O’Farrell offers a K-12 experience; Gompers is a middle and high school).

Parents also talked about appreciating the schools’ programs, teachers and open-door policies – the kind of features that used to be exclusive to traditional public schools.

Principals play a leading role in school turnarounds.

Every school on this list, save for Lincoln, offers a successful turnaround story. And behind each success is a leader who stayed at the school long enough to establish consistency and see students reap the rewards.

For my story on McKinley, I talked to Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute. Petrilli wrote a book on the unique challenges facing schools in gentrifying neighborhoods.

An engaging principal is crucial to success, Petrilli said. “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.”

Both Julie Ashton-Gray, former principal of McKinley, and Eddie Caballero, principal of Sherman, found ways to bring parents along by making them part of the solution.

Ashton-Gray persuaded parents to give the school a try, and supported efforts to have them chip in with funding or labor to offset the costs of its rigorous academic program. More importantly, she kept them there with improved results.

Caballero built Sherman from scratch. From the very beginning he sought parent buy-in, educating them on the benefits of bilingual education and growing a committed body of parents to serve on school committees. Early on, when school board members voted to move Caballero to another school, parents rallied to get him back. They won. Today, Sherman students are reaping the benefits.

Not all parents share your values – and that’s OK.

Parents often seek my advice when they’re looking for a school for their children. Many of the middle-class, college-educated parents have a well-defined lists of things they’re looking for in a school. They might be looking for, say, a high-achieving bilingual school, with a dash of STEM, maybe with some project-based learning, for good measure. It’s easy to assume all parents maintain similar lists of must haves.

But when I talk to parents at schools or in the community, parents who may not have gone to school in the U.S. or didn’t go to college, a different list emerges. They’re often seeking practical considerations, like whether it offers an after-school program. Parents want schools that instill courtesy and respect in their children. Or maybe places with strict discipline policies, which they equate with safer campuses.

That’s certainly the case at The O’Farrell Charter School, where I met Rosalia Hurtado. O’Farrell requires students to wear uniforms, which, I can imagine, would rub some parents the wrong way. I asked Hurtado if she likes the uniforms her daughter has to wear.

“Oh yes,” she told me. “In Mexico, we always wore uniforms to school. School is for learning, not for fashion.”

It’s a good reminder that while middle-class values might drive the conversation about charter schools and school choice, all parents seek options that are best for their kids.

Schools reflect neighborhoods.

One of the biggest truisms in education is that what happens at home is more important than what happens in school. It’s widely accepted that a student’s test scores are roughly proportional to his or her parents’ socioeconomic status.

Looking at San Diego Unified’s test scores, it’s plain to see they align with neighborhood income levels. The highest test scores unsurprisingly show up in La Jolla and Scripps Ranch, two of the most affluent and exclusive neighborhoods in the district’s boundaries.

On the other side, few parents in La Jolla and Scripps Ranch are likely to wrestle with the question of whether they should look for a charter school because the neighborhood school closest to home is too violent.

Luckily, schools showed us they don’t have to be defined by their parents’ income levels. Sherman built its success on the Spanish-speaking members of its neighborhood. O’Farrell offers its students high academics and a haven from the violence of the surrounding neighborhood.

Turning around a school is hard, painstaking work. But the good news is that it’s possible for schools to both reflect and respond to the needs of their communities.

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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