When iHigh Virtual Academy’s principal submitted her two weeks’ notice, San Diego Unified officials recognized they had a problem. It was the school’s fifth leadership change in three years.
“That’s a big red flag,” Fabiola Bagula, San Diego Unified’s deputy superintendent, said of the leadership turnover. So, she decided to pop the hood on iHigh and what she saw concerned her.
More than 70 percent of students in the classes of 2024 and 2025 were not on track to graduate, according to district data. The district didn’t immediately provide data about how these rates compared to other schools. Bagula said iHigh’s students were also receiving an abnormally high number of failing grades compared to the rest of the district.
But it wasn’t just student performance.
The cost per pupil was nearly three times higher than the district average. Average per pupil spending is around $30,000 at iHigh, while the San Diego Unified’s overall average is around $11,500, according to the district.
All of this was compounded by what look to be impending budget cuts emanating from a decrease in funding from the May revise of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget.
“When I saw that resignation letter, I thought, ‘So we’re going to hire a new principal for this school system that’s going to have a 20 something percent graduation rate?’” Bagula said. “No. This is not a good, fiscally responsible decision or even supportive of students.”
On May 12, San Diego Unified announced it would be closing iHigh to students in grades 6-12. The virtual academy originally served students in an independent study capacity, but during the pandemic the district redesigned iHigh to be a regular school for families who wanted an online option. It offered synchronous instruction rather than self-paced coursework.
The announcement took many families and teachers by surprise.
Last week, more than 40 parents and educators attended a virtual meeting of iHigh’s Site Governance team. The frustration at times reached a boiling anger. Attendees argued they weren’t consulted prior to the decision and despite being directly asked during the meeting, district officials only hinted at why they closed iHigh to middle and high schoolers.
“We sacrificed hours of our time away from our families, hours,” iHigh teacher Tiffany Cuellar said to San Diego Unified Senior Director of Instruction Jennifer Roberson, who attended the meeting. “We held the school up when the wings were falling off and there was no engine, and to just be thrown out like the trash … it’s really disheartening and so disappointing.”
The district plans to still offer families an online option through a self-paced Edgenuity system that will be tied to school sites and based on what they see as a successful credit recovery program at Scripps Ranch and Hoover. But iHigh was more than just a credit recovery program, say some parents and staff, who are convinced Edgenuity is not the right model for their children.
The district chose not to close elementary levels of iHigh, Bagula said, because they didn’t have successful models to look to. “We just didn’t feel confident enough to say we have a different model,” Bagula said. “We don’t have data where I can say these children are not on track or on track to graduate, but in sixth grade through 12th grade, the data was there and quite frankly screaming.”
Bagula said she wants this redesign to be an iterative process, not something set in stone from the outset.
“You try an idea, but you collect data to see if the idea works. And if it is not working, and you know, within three weeks or four weeks, then it’s not the right idea,” Bagula said.
Still, she said going forward she hopes to engage stakeholders in a more collaborative way when big decisions like this come up.
But for Cuellar, a third-grade teacher at iHigh, even though the district didn’t decide to shut down the elementary school portion of the school, the closure still stings. She’s also worried that given the abruptness of this recent change, there’s no guarantee the district won’t cut the elementary side of iHigh in the future.
“Any other school site would not have been treated with this level of disrespect,” Cuellar said. “The teachers carried the Virtual Academy, and in a way saved San Diego Unified when they needed to be saved. They needed a program to help families and the teachers and the staff during this unprecedented global pandemic, and we were there.”
iHigh saw a significant drop in enrollment from last year to this year, but Cuellar said that was something teachers expected. Staff knew the transition back to in-person learning was likely to mean fewer students at iHigh. But she does question Bagula’s assertion that the school had five leaders within three years. Multiple iHigh staff members said they don’t remember the school having that many leadership changes.
Cuellar also isn’t sure how the district determined iHigh was spending so much more per pupil. “I have to question that … How is it $20,000 more per student at virtual? I mean, the kids are at home,” she said.
Cuellar said she doesn’t have much insight into what the middle and high school levels of iHigh requested from the district, and what the district may have provided, but that she’d sent many emails begging for support that went unanswered.
“The district did not offer support. They knew we needed help and they did not offer the support that we needed to be successful,” Cuellar said. “The teachers have worked so hard, and for the families who really needed the Virtual Academy, it’s been such a blessing.”