San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten attends a 2013 meeting at Burbank Elementary. Burbank is among the most segregated schools in California, according to an analysis of school data by KPCC. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

That San Diego Unified schools are segregated by race and class isn’t news to educators or those familiar with the district. In 1977, a Superior Court judge found 23 schools in the district were racially segregated to the point they demanded intervention. The judge ordered the district to desegregate and allowed it to come up with a plan to do so voluntarily.

When we looked at those schools two years ago, however, nearly all of the ones on the original list – with one possible exception – were still segregated by race and class. And over the past 10 years, the San Diego Unified school board has dramatically scaled back integration efforts.


In 2011, the school board launched a plan to create a quality school in every neighborhood and keep kids in their assigned schools. In the past seven years, the district has nearly halved the number of students who have access to school buses – the mechanism that largely makes integration possible.

The more interesting question, perhaps, is the degree to which any of this matters to the school board or to the public.

There hasn’t exactly been a critical mass of parents pushing for more integrated schools. More often, parents who aren’t happy with their assigned neighborhood schools speak with their feet. They seek out district schools outside their neighborhood, or places like High Tech High, which achieves diversity by employing a ZIP code-based lottery system, or any number of other charter schools.

There is, however, a vocal segment of the public who support traditional school systems (those without charter schools) and believe that charter schools make segregation worse. This argument can go two ways, depending on the school (or who’s making the argument): Either that charter schools have practices that discriminate against students of color during admissions, thereby attracting and enrolling more white students, or that charter schools enroll a disproportionate number of students of color.

Either approach would cut against a broad goal of creating an integrated school that mirrors the demographic makeup of the greater school district or city.

The latest salvo in the argument began earlier this month, with an Associated Press story that makes two main points: Charter school students are more likely to attend segregated schools; and the levels of segregation correspond to low achievement.

The story was roundly criticized by education reformers and policy analysts. Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, wrote that the story relies on a flawed analysis that misses the fact that many charter schools are intentionally located in cities and neighborhoods with high concentrations of students of color. Students in those areas may attend segregated schools, but many come from neighborhood schools that are just as segregated.

“If students are simply moving from one all-black school to another, there is no impact on overall segregation of schools,” Lake wrote.

This is generally true in San Diego, too. Most charter schools are located south of Interstate 8 – often used as shorthand for the city’s socioeconomic dividing line. Gompers Preparatory Academy and O’Farrell Charter School, both located in southeastern San Diego, are majority black and Latino. Because the majority of students at both schools come from the surrounding neighborhood, their assigned neighborhood schools are also majority black and Latino.

And the AP story glosses over the biggest drivers of school segregation: poverty and housing patterns.

Alberto Retana, who leads the nonprofit Community Coalition of South Los Angeles, talked to Southern California Radio about the historical and systemic causes of segregation: “Red-lining, [housing] covenants, chronic disinvestment in where development happens, white flight, capital flight — it’s totally not surprising that our schools are an indicator of our society as a whole.”

When KPCC mapped the data the AP relied on for its story, however, the analysis did shed fresh light on where racially homogeneous schools are located. Eight schools in San Diego Unified make the list of the most racially segregated schools in the state. Those eight are evenly split between charters and traditional schools.

One caveat to the data is the fact in San Diego Unified, like many districts in Southern California, Latino students make up the largest subgroup of students, at 46 percent. (White students, the next largest group, make up 23 percent). This complicates efforts to create integrated schools.

This is all an interesting exercise, you might be thinking. But what does it actually mean for students? The reason it matters to many people gets back to the Brown v. Board decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are fundamentally unequal.

Despite the ruling, schools with high concentrations of students of color or those living in poverty are still more likely to have the least effective teachers, limited access to college-prep classes or stand to lose the most teachers when it comes time for layoffs.

None of these trends are new, and there’s no local movement afoot to change them. Meanwhile, parents unhappy with their assigned neighborhood schools continue find an escape hatch in charter schools.

For that alone, it may be worth considering what might happen if that escape hatch were to close, and parents had no other avenue for change than to organize and pressure the school board to provide the same things they seek in charter schools. Then again, turning away from charter schools in hopes that the school district one day improves neighborhood schools is a gamble many parents would be wary to make with their own children.

How Effective Is Your School District? A New Measure Shows Where Students Learn the Most

For years, parents looking for quality school options have looked to standardized test scores. But that might be the wrong measure to focus on, it turns out. It may be better to see where students make the biggest gains in learning.

Last week, New York Times published a fascinating story and helpful tool that lets you see where that’s happening. San Diego County’s own Chula Vista Elementary School District makes the list of school districts posting the highest gains – which is especially interesting and relevant given the district’s high concentration of English-learners and bilingual education programs.

The Community College ‘Segregation Machine’

Hundreds of thousands of community college students in California are placed in remedial courses every year. Many fail to make successfully make it through within two years. Success rates for students of color are even worse.

Latino students in community colleges are twice as likely as whites to end up in the lowest level of remedial English, according to a joint story from inewsource and Hechinger Report.

Black students are five times as likely to be placed in the lowest levels of remedial English:

“The culprit, say experts and academics, has been the rules governing community college placement decisions. Almost anyone can enroll at a community college in California, but each college has its own process to decide how to place students. Even though state law requires colleges to consider more than just a standardized exam in this process, those exams have long been used as the deciding factor, despite questions about their accuracy.”

Data show students who are placed directly into college-level classes pass at higher rates than those who go through a remedial sequence, including those who went to low-performing high schools, according to the story.

Jerry Brown’s Dilemma: Fix School Funding Formula Now or Watch Others Do it Later

With Gov. Jerry Brown termed out of office next year, EdSource checked in with two dozen education leaders, advocates and lawmakers across the state – including San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber – to get their takes on the effectiveness of Brown’s landmark education law, the Local Control Funding Formula, and how it might be improved.

In a companion piece, EdSource’s John Fensterwald explains the choice Brown now faces:

“The question he should ask himself is whether it would be wiser to negotiate needed fixes to the law or watch the Legislature, the next governor and a new State Board of Education the new governor will appoint, start chipping away at the funding formula in ways Brown might regret.”

A New Dashboard, and Tips for How (Not) to Write About Dreamers

• After years of planning, last week the state released the California School Dashboard, which employs a multi-color system for grading the performance of schools, school districts and charter schools on a variety of measurements.

At first glance, the dashboard can be confusing. But before you throw up your hands, read this helpful explainer from EdSource for how to interpret it.

• With a deadline looming on a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – which offers young people temporary relief from deportation – The Guardian and Columbia Journalism Review gathered a group of young people impacted by the program to hear their advice for writers and reporters.

They offer some great tips. Here’s one:

“We don’t all have 4.2 GPAs: We understand a great student who is involved with their community is a sympathetic character, but everyone who qualifies for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is worthy of deportation relief. The stories of the best and brightest, the model immigrants, aren’t more important than those who have to work low-paying jobs because of their immigration status, or who drop out of school to help their families.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized success rates for students taking remedial classes in community colleges. The inewsource/Hechinger Report story linked to in this post dealt with students who fail to make it through a remedial course sequence within two years, not necessarily those who ultimately fail the courses.

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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