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La Jolla High School / Photo by Sam Hodgson

In San Diego Unified, the daunting marketplace of school choice is open for business.

In districts all around the county, parents and students can take part in a choice process that allows them to opt for schools outside their neighborhood. Most school districts in the county open their choice windows later in the school year, but San Diego Unified – like other big districts in the state – opens its window in October, just as parents are getting settled into the current school year.  

San Diego Unified’s window opened Oct. 1 and remains open through Nov. 13 at midnight.

But choosing a school other than your assigned neighborhood school does not mean your child will get in. Parents can choose up to three schools within the traditional public system. (You must apply to charter schools individually and their choice windows tend to open after the New Year.) Whether a child gets in depends on if there is enough space and several priorities that can improve the odds, such as having a sibling who already attends a school, or if a parent in the family works in the same school cluster.

San Diego considers seven different priority levels, which can be found in this FAQ on the district website.

Weighing the plethora of factors that make any one school preferable can be crazy-making. And it’s deeply personal. Hopefully, that’s where our schools guide can help.

Our guide came out last year, but because new academic data won’t be released until the end of this year, it’s still the most up-to-date information you’ll be able to find on San Diego Unified schools.

The interactive map – as well as the guide itself – will give you two critical academic data points on each school: how the school’s test scores stack up against the average, and whether the school’s scores are improving or declining. Make sure to click on the “key and definitions” tab at the top of the page to see a legend of symbols. The guide and map also give information about the percentage of students considered English-language learners, SAT scores and other information.

Why So Early, San Diego?

In recent years, San Diego Unified has bumped up the opening of the choice window from November to October and also shortened the amount of time the window stays open.

I reached out to the district to find out why, and the official logic has much to do with logistics. The timing, according to a written statement from Marceline Marques, who oversees choice, passed on to me through a district spokeswoman, helps “provide the district and school sites time to master plan for staffing and programmatic needs, aligned with budget development for the following year.”

Julian Vasquez Heilig, an education researcher at Sacramento State University, confirmed that large districts facing complex logistical challenges do need more time to plan.

But another researcher, Gary Miron, from Western Michigan University, told me “some families, especially lower-income families, will benefit from later windows because they may not be the families that are planning for the next school year eight months out.”

He also added, that in the face of increased competition from charter schools, districts may be opening earlier windows in the hopes of getting students to commit to the traditional public system.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee said participation in the San Diego Unified choice program has increased since the earlier window opened two years ago. Roughly 10,000 applications have been submitted each year, which is about 1,000 more applications than in previous years, she said. She did not provide specific data.

Choice vs. Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood

San Diego Unified’s guiding mission is to have a quality school in every neighborhood by 2020, which would ultimately lead to fewer kids choosing to attend school outside of their neighborhoods. But for many years the percentage of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood stayed fairly flat, hovering at around 44 percent as recently as two years ago.

Last year, though, the percentage was closer to 35 percent, according to data provided to the Union-Tribune.

While the district has created many specialized magnet schools designed as a draw – in a highly competitive school marketplace that features many specialized charter schools – still the most highly prized schools may have more to do with address than programs, according to data compiled by the U-T.

Of the 10 schools with the lowest acceptance rates, seven were north of I-8. Only one was a specialized magnet school; the rest were just regular neighborhood schools.

All of those 10 schools had lower acceptance rates than UCLA – which accepts 14 percent of applicants – according to the U-T.

Ed Reads

MCQUARY: Who’s in the… who’s in the runoff with me?

Union-Tribune: I’m sorry?

MCQUARY: No, I’m sorry. Yeah. No, Michelle. That’s right.

Union-Tribune: Yeah. Marcia Nordstrom, right?

MCQUARY: Right, right.

The U-T editorial board didn’t mind the flub too much: It announced this week it was endorsing McQuary.

My Work

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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