Superintendent Cindy Marten celebrates the construction of a new music building at Mira Mesa High School funded by the districts Propositions S and Z. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The most basic service a school can provide is to make a child feel safe within its walls.

And yet, some San Diego Unified schools appear to be doing much better at the task than others. At some elementary schools, as much as 96 percent of students say they feel safe in school. At others, the percentage drops down well into the 50s.

The gaps are just as wide in other wellness measures. Have students seen a weapon on campus? Is there an adult at school who cares about them? Are they proud to be part of their school? (These questions and the data come from the California Healthy Kids Survey.)

I previously asked district spokeswoman Maureen Magee how the district uses this data. But her answer was vague. She said the district works with schools to help them understand their results, but at the same time she questioned the validity of individual school results.

I wanted to know if district officials actually care about this data, if it’s something they’re working to improve or if it’s just another data point lost in a forgotten corner of the cloud.

So after an event Wednesday about school climate for LGBTQ-plus students, I asked Superintendent Cindy Marten. (During the event, she said, “Students don’t learn when they don’t feel safe.”)

As we walked out to her car so she could head to another event, I asked how she uses the survey results for the safety question. And I also asked her what they tell her about the district’s progress toward fulfilling its Vision 2020 plan, which says there will be a quality school in every neighborhood by 2020.

Her answer, dear reader, was less than fulfilling.

“What I think is important is that our state has made a decision that we’re not gonna have a single test score that’s gonna measure our schools anymore. We are gonna look at a robust set of multiple measures, including student safety,” she said.

She went on:

“We need to have more measures that we’re looking at the students overall health and well-being and social emotional learning … So what’s the right tool? California Healthy Kids survey is a tool that people are using. But we’re actually using a tool throughout the day.”

(She did not elaborate on this tool.)

“You asked [about the healthy kids survey] ‘Do we use it?’ ‘Do we think it’s important?’ The schools have that data and they have the results that they’re able to use to build robust professional development plans. So school by school, every school has to unpack, ‘What does this mean for us?’”

We stopped at the edge of the parking lot, standing in a small patch of shade.

“When you have a school with 50-something percent of students feeling safe, is that a quality neighborhood school or is there work to be done?” I asked.

“Safety is incredibly important,” Marten responded. She paused and glared at me through aviator-style sunglasses.

“I’m not trying to trick you,” I said.

“Safety is incredibly important,” she repeated. “There’s work to be done, always … We always say each and every student needs to get what he or she needs, when they need it, in the way that they need it. And when you have an individualized approach to students’ safety, well-being and an educational program that’s gonna meet their needs, there will always be work to be done.”

And with that, she said, “Thanks,” and dashed off into the blinding sun.

George Packer Was Oppressed by Progressive Politics

George Packer’s essay in The Atlantic about his son’s school gave a lot of people a lot of thoughts. Packer describes the bird’s eye view of one elite and wealthy New York family’s attempts to navigate the school system.

Along the way, Packer comes to believe that a new era of progressive politics has taken over his son’s school and not for the good. My former classmate Alexandria Neason summed up a lot of people’s thoughts about the essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.

“The disconnect between the realities of most public school parents and the ease with which the media labels one experience as emblematic of many reflects a press corps that continues to fail at the goal of achieving meaningful racial diversity within its ranks,” she wrote.

Packer is a writer who eloquently expresses his perspective. But it’s possible to travel too far on the sound of one’s own voice. Eloquence, unfortunately, does not compensate for blinders.

In his examination of standardized tests and the opt-out movement, Packer did make one point, which I think bears serious consideration: “Banishing tests seemed like a way to let everyone off the hook,” he wrote.

Boiling the quality of a school down to nothing but test scores is certainly flawed. But it is the job of the press to hold public institutions accountable, and reporters must find a way to do so. Evaluating segregation in schools is one way to do that. Judging a school by how safe students feel is another.

With standardized tests out, many within the power structures of education would love for us to believe that judging the quality of a school is next to impossible. We should not be fooled.

What We’re Writing

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

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