Desks at a Perkins Elementary School classrooms. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Welcome back – not just to the Learning Curve, but to the first week of school in San Diego Unified.

Before I get into all the anxiety and excitement that comes with a new school year, I just want to say thank you for your responses to my last newsletter. I heard from a concerned parent about the district’s budget, a superintendent and a former San Diego Unified principal, who I met for drinks last week. Keep the responses coming. I still haven’t found that dedicated citizen who wants to attend Borrego Springs Board of Education meetings, but one can hope.

When will the depression about not going back to school go away????

— Shannon Cahill (@shannnoncahill) August 30, 2018

Twitter reminded me that back-to-school time brings out the blues in scores of adults who are sad that no annual event will ever again live up to the mix of nerves and wide-open possibility that comes with the first day of each school year. I wouldn’t say I miss it, but – writing as an extrovert and a white dude – I do remember my charged emotions and how thrilling it could be to harness all that into new friendships and navigating the all-encompassing world of school social dynamics. If you have a good back-to-school story, I’d love to hear it.

While it seems fair to say that most kids are more concerned with the social scene than math class, logistical academic challenges are also a big part of the beginning of the school year. We’ve written about the teacher shuffle that happens after the third week of every school year. It’s a problematic time for most districts, including San Diego Unified, when schools take their official count of students. Depending on whether the count is over or under the estimated student population at a given school, it might lose or gain teachers. The process destabilizes students and teachers alike. In 2015, Superintendent Cindy Marten said it would cost from $8 million to $36 million annually to end the shuffle.

But maybe the most abiding and opinion-inducing problem pegged to the return of the school year in San Diego has to do with air conditioners, or, more precisely, a lack of them. Roughly 24 percent of classrooms (including charters) still don’t have A.C., according to the Union-Tribune. The district approved an expedited plan two years ago to have A.C. in every classroom by 2019, which would be funded by school bonds  from Props. S and Z. (Spokesperson Maureen Magee told me the district is on track to meet its goal by the end of summer 2019.) With $2 billion left to be spent from those bonds, a new $3.5 billion bond will be on the ballot this November. The question of centralized cooling is especially important in San Diego, because sometimes district officials are forced to end school early because of the extreme heat.

You probably saw that President Barack Obama released an implicitly pointed ode to curiosity and facts in the form of his summer reading list. Novelist Min Jin Lee’s back-to-school reading list received just a little less attention, but is an interesting attempt to make a reading list inspired by school subjects. She breaks it down by STEM, creative arts, history and social sciences. Alexis Okeowo and Audre Lorde made the list, so don’t be scared off by the proximity to core school subjects.

Other Education Reads

  • Just before our last newsletter, I missed a report from Airbnb that roughly 10 percent of people who rent out their homes on the platform are educators. It’s a striking statistic considering that only 2 percent of Americans work as teachers, as Alia Wong highlighted in The Atlantic. In San Diego alone, educators reportedly made $2.7 million using airbnb. Airbnb and Uber would like us to see this as a representation of their importance to undervalued workers like teachers, but as Wong notes, it is also helpful for reminding us that teachers in some cases may be forced to supplement their income.
  • The California Legislature passed a bill that would ban for-profit charter schools. This is big news given that around 25,000 students in the state attend such schools, but it still remains to be seen whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the bill. Brown started two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland, as pointed out by the Washington Post, and decided not to sign previous legislation that would have made charters more transparent. K12 Inc. is one of the biggest for-profit charter companies in the state. The company received $310 million in state funding, but ultimately had to pay $168 million back after it was revealed the company manipulated attendance records and overstated students’ success. No for-profit charters operate in San Diego Unified, according to the California Charter Schools Association.
  • San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten gave a wide-ranging interview to the Union-Tribune editorial board in which she gave herself an “A” grade for her tenure as superintendent. If only grading during my school days had been so simple. Marten noted that the district had worked to close the achievement gap in at least one metric where black students progressed more than other subgroups. Mario Koran painted a more nuanced picture of Marten’s performance in May. The U-T editorial board pushed Marten on some of Voice’s reporting, including how much graduation rates really tell us about how many students graduate, and the fact that bond measures past and present have vowed to fix school pipes. The editorial board also suggested Marten should spend an hour or two giving an interview at our office, which we would certainly welcome.

My Work

  • In my latest, I dug into California’s new method for calculating graduation rates. TLDR; districts will no longer be able to count adult education programs or high school equivalency tests toward their graduation rates. San Diego Unified has long touted its above-average graduation rate among urban districts. The class of 2017’s graduation rate would have been 90.6 percent under the old formula; instead, it was 86.6 percent.
  • I also covered the perennial problem of mismanaged Associated Student Body accounts. This is money that comes from school events and is supposed to be spent on students only. But a recent audit found that schools sometimes use these funds on inappropriate expenditures like teacher training. ASB money going to staff parties is also a complaint that’s come up in the past. The district has vowed to fix this problem with more training many times and yet new audits keep turning up problems. Choice quote from audit committee head Dan McAllister: “It is so unfair for the kids. It’s easy for adults to prey on these funds and basically use them like slush funds.” Bonus: FOX 5 brought me on to talk about the story, so if you want see a print reporter looking real silly on TV, it is available.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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