Porter Elementary School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

District E is a collection of more than 35 schools in the southeastern corner of San Diego. Its boundaries stretch from Paradise Hills up to El Cajon Boulevard.

For years, black and Latino community members have demanded the schools be provided the resources they need to help children succeed. And yet, for years the schools have languished, even while other clusters of schools along the coast have been extremely successful.

Back in 2009, San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education passed a bold new plan. Vision 2020 would deliver “quality schools in every neighborhood” by 2020, board members claimed. But despite impressive gains in the district across some metrics, the schools within District E make it abundantly clear that the vision of quality schools in every neighborhood is still not the reality.

This year, for instance, 12 traditional schools in San Diego Unified School District will automatically qualify for the state’s list of worst-performing schools. Seven of those schools are located in District E.

These schools are not considered among the state’s worst-performing simply because of test scores. They ranked among the worst or next-to-worst in multiple categories that also measure school climate, such as suspension rates and how often students are absent from school.

“The schools in my district are among the worst-performing schools in the city,” said LaWana Richmond, who is running to represent District E on the school board this year. “Probably the biggest thing right now is the disconnect the community feels. They were asking me to run because they feel as if they’re not being heard.”

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who currently represents the district and is running for re-election, declined to comment.

The California School Dashboard evaluates school performance across a variety of measures. The rainbow of colors that represent the health of the District E schools are more often on the lower and middle end of the performance spectrum.

Going from worst to best, the dashboard color range is: red, orange, yellow, green and blue.

Click on the image to expand.

Porter Elementary and Knox Middle in particular have been struggling. Both schools have ranked in the bottom two categories across all metrics measured by the state Department of Education for two years in a row.

Keashonna Christopher is a counselor at Porter who has also worked at Knox. She grew up in District E.

In richer parts of the city, “it just seems like this wouldn’t be tolerated,” Christopher said. It is not as if parents in District E don’t care, she said. Many are upset about the state of their schools and have tried to raise concerns.

“Parents will voice their concerns and sometimes there will be a forum to hear them out.  But then actual follow-up for action items doesn’t happen. … It doesn’t turn into actual outcomes,” she said.

Last year, Voice of San Diego documented serious special education and safety problems at Porter.

Porter’s struggles go back decades. The school’s name was changed in 2005, because state officials were threatening to step in over poor performance. The name change was designed to buy district officials more time to help the school recover.

In previous years, when a school ended up on the state’s list of worst-performing schools, parents were notified. And they were automatically given the opportunity to send their child to another school and receive free transportation. But that provision, along with another known as the Parent Trigger Law, no longer exist in California.

Porter feeds into Knox Middle School, which feeds into Lincoln High School. Though Lincoln isn’t officially listed among the state’s worst-performing schools, its troubles go back years. It has been plagued by instability and its entire leadership team was dismissed abruptly over the summer.

“We all know there was a Vision 2020 and some things were implemented, but what were the results of all those things? The opportunity gap or the achievement gap has not been closed. We’re nowhere close to getting that done,” said LaShae Collins, who ran to represent District E on the school board four years ago.

Collins beat Whitehurst-Payne by a significant margin in the primary. (Only voters in sub-districts, like District E, vote during the primary. During the general election, candidates must run citywide.) But Whitehurst-Payne, who was backed by the local teacher’s union, won in the general election.

Whitehurst-Payne told the San Diego Union-Tribune the school board has accomplished “tremendous things” during her tenure. But she has also called out Marten over failures of leadership at Lincoln High and even voted against giving Marten an early contract extension.

“Getting Lincoln High School right has to be the district’s No. 1 priority, not with all the stops and starts,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “We have not put together a comprehensive, coordinated picture for Lincoln High School because those students are indicative of other kids in the district who are not achieving.”

“It’s a tough scenario,” said Christopher, the school counselor. “When you see this has taken place for decades you have to look at the system and be honest about how it serves this community and where the shortfalls are.”

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

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