San Diego Unified school buses / File photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
San Diego Unified school buses / File photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

When I was a kid, my mom and I walked a block and a half from our apartment to wait for the big yellow school bus that took me to The Language Academy, a San Diego Unified magnet school that offered a bilingual program. And I wasn’t the only one.  

For many years, the district’s transportation program largely revolved around busing kids living in one neighborhood to school in a different part of the city – often from poorer schools in the south and the east of the city to more well-off ones in the north and west.  

But over the past decade, San Diego Unified has drastically slashed its transportation program. Since 2010, the number of routes has decreased by more than half, and the number of student riders has decreased by nearly two-thirds.  

The district attributes its cutbacks of busing primarily to economics: Buses are expensive, and drivers can be hard to find. And historically, when finances are tight, the district cut back busing over other services, like libraries. But another factor in San Diego Unified’s shift away from the big yellow bus may be its pivot toward neighborhood schools.  

A bit of history: In American education, busing has often been synonymous with attempts to integrate segregated schools. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled racially-segregated schools unconstitutional in the 1950s, but coordinated efforts to tackle segregation at San Diego Unified were mandated in 1977, when a judge ruled the district needed to come up with a plan to integrate 23 “minority racially isolated” schools. 

What this often looked like was transporting students of color to majority-white schools. But unlike in some areas, these programs were all voluntary. The district’s magnet schools, Voluntary Enrollment Exchange Program – which allows kids to certain schools outside of their neighborhood – and broad school choice were a large part of the strategy. 

Ultimately, San Diego Unified’s efforts to integrate schools had mixed results. Some schools are less segregated, but as the demographics of the district have also dramatically shifted, direct comparisons are akin to apples and oranges. Some advocates have also long decried the mental and financial drain these kinds of programs represented. As local kids left their neighborhood schools it not only cemented the notion that something is wrong with them, but it also shifted funds away from often-struggling schools to ones that already have more. 

A shift in tactics:  Buoyed by state and potential federal money, San Diego Unified is looking to expand transportation in the coming years. But instead of using buses to ferry kids across the city, they’re planning to transport them across their own neighborhoods. It’s part and parcel to the district’s vision of creating a quality school in every neighborhood by 2020 which, like its integration efforts, was a mixed bag

The district has what they call neighborhood shuttles – educational jargon for school buses – up and running in 12 schools. But so far that only accounts for 1.3 percent of the district’s total ridership. As it stands, the vast majority – around 74 percent – of the district’s buses are used to transport students with disabilities. 

The district plans to add five more routes to Lincoln cluster schools this coming year and to continue to expand throughout the district cluster by cluster, with a focus on the areas most acutely struggling with low enrollment, chronic absenteeism and safety issues. 

“I think what the district is hoping to see is to … bring students back to our district itself,” said Gene Robinson, San Diego Unified’s director of transportation and distribution services.  

Whether they’re currently attending a private school or a charter school, they hope transportation can encourage students and families to make their neighborhood schools their first choice.  

Robinson said one element of this choice is that the district believes transportation for its Voluntary Enrollment Exchange Program and magnet schools is right where it should be. 

There are still challenges, Robinson said. The district currently has more than 80 unfilled bus driver positions. If it were able to fill all those positions, it could potentially more than double the number of kids transported to and from school. 

But perhaps the most striking takeaway from the San Diego Unified plan approved in March to increase neighborhood shuttles is that the areas initially prioritized are the ones most affected by past programs that shuttled kids out. So, is this new era of transportation a backtrack, or even a tacit admission that the decades-long practice of busing kids out of their neighborhoods failed? 

San Diego Unified board member Shana Hazan wouldn’t touch that can of worms. But she did say that while the district’s busing programs had successes – heck, I really enjoyed my magnet school experience – “what can also be true is there were unintended consequences for neighborhood schools in historically marginalized and underserved communities.” 

The same can be true, she said, of the district’s new transportation ventures. While she’s a proponent of neighborhood schools, Hazan wondered aloud whether strengthening them can have the unintended consequence of decreasing diversity in district schools. After all, San Diego is still highly segregated, so it would make sense that if more kids go to the school down the block, it’s likely the school may take on a more uniform demographic. 

Hazan said she hopes that’s not the case, but that “you can push on one lever and then who knows what pops up on the other side.” 

“What I do know for sure is that when we provide really excellent education in each of those schools, we are serving every child and every family well,” Hazan said. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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