Laura Rodriguez Elementary School in Logan Heights on March 10, 2023.
Laura Rodriguez Elementary School in Logan Heights on March 10, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Believe it or not, school is right around the corner. The largest district in the county, San Diego Unified, kicks off its school year on Monday. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where the time went, but in the meantime, here are some things I’ll be following in the coming school year. Do you have a suggestion? Email me here

Will Chronic Absenteeism Fall? 

The pandemic led to an explosion in chronic absenteeism, which is when a student misses at least 10 percent of days in a school year. The concern about this statistic is simple – if a kid isn’t in school, they can’t learn. Before the pandemic, California’s chronic absenteeism rate hovered at about 11 percent. In 2021, that number shot up to about 30 percent. That trend showed up at most districts and most schools at San Diego Unified.  

Schools in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, however, have long had higher levels of chronic absenteeism. So even if two schools saw a tripling of their chronic absenteeism rate, they ended up at very different places because they started at very different places. Take Rodriguez Elementary in Logan Heights and Bird Rock Elementary in La Jolla – both schools saw their rates triple, but their rates of chronic absenteeism now stand at 76 percent and 13 percent respectively. 

That the bad chronic absenteeism news most severely impacted schools in already disadvantaged neighborhoods was one big takeaway from my reporting on the topic. Another takeaway is that different grade levels had different rates of chronic absenteeism, with the highest rates being in lower grades. That’s a worrying trend because kids in lower grades are working to build the foundation of knowledge they’ll need to succeed throughout the rest of their academic career. 

Districts like San Diego Unified are working with schools to combat the crisis. Others like the San Diego County’s Office of Education are working on strategies. But getting to the bottom of why kids are missing so much school can be difficult. New data the state will release in the coming months will tell us if those strategies have been successful. 

In any case, all of this spells trouble not only for attempts to close the long-standing achievement gap but also to start to make up some of the educational ground lost over the pandemic. Which brings me to another thing I’ll be watching… 

Will Test Scores Show Improvement?  

Students enter Hoover High School in City Heights on Nov. 29, 2022.
File photo by Ariana Drehsler

These are admittedly a flawed metric when it comes to actually measuring kids’ knowledge, after all test scores are, like almost everything in education, very closely correlated with income. That’s why we created a new metric for our Parent’s Guide to San Diego Schools that controls for poverty in test scores

Flawed nature aside, test scores are what we’ve got, and they have been bleak. The pandemic led to shocking drops in academic performance that, like chronic absenteeism, most severely affected kids who were already struggling. Also, like chronic absenteeism, we’re yet to see just how effective some of the strategies districts are implementing will be in helping kids gain ground. 

For some kids, who did a lot of their foundational knowledge building parked in front of a computer, the learning curve may be steep.  

Will San Diego Unified Eliminate Its After-School Care Waitlist?  

For some working parents, access to free after-school care can be a life-changing thing. The soaring cost of childcare has even forced some families to skip town. Just ask Jared Goossens, a single father of a San Diego Unified student who had to turn down a job and worries he’d lose his apartment because of his son’s restrictive school schedule.  

He spent more than a year in a waiting list limbo for the district’s PrimeTime after-school care program. When he finally got a spot, he was able to take a job as a postal worker, a job he says will allow him to retire and be secure.  

Goossens’ getting off the dreaded waitlist is because San Diego Unified has managed to deploy new state funding to drastically reduce the number of families waiting for care. And it’s continued to reduce it. But despite setting a goal to eliminate it altogether, it still hasn’t managed that, as former VOSDer Andy Keatts found out

How Will Universal Transitional Kindergarten Shake Out? 

A kindergarten student listens to herself read during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary school in University City on April 24, 2023.
File photo by Ariana Drehsler

California debuted a new grade for 4 year olds called universal transitional kindergarten. San Diego Unified decided to roll it out early in hopes it could help its longstanding drops in enrollment. One board member even thinks public schools should replace private childcare altogether. While it helped, it didn’t stop the trend.  

But even given the district’s high hopes, and the good experiences of some parents, educators have flagged problems with the program. This isn’t a huge surprise. Launching a brand-new grade is no easy task, but it’s clear there are some issues to iron out. 

How Will San Diego Unified Deal With its Budget Woes?  

After multiple boom years, when federal money helped inflate the district’s budget, they’re now facing a once familiar reality: deficits. But these deficits are big, reaching nearly $200 million in the coming years. Officials have projected confidence in their ability to make the numbers work without having to resort to the significant layoffs of the past. Still, it’s clear cuts are coming. The only question is from where? 

What We’re Writing 

I recently dug into countywide suspension rates and found something surprising. For the first year in at least a decade, Indigenous students were now the most disproportionately suspended demographic in San Diego schools when compared to their population. When I started picking apart the data, however, I found something else. One district was suspending Indigenous students at such a high rate it had inflated the countywide numbers. Related: Over the past decade, suspension rates have dropped significantly across the county, but disparities among demographics remain.  

Parent’s Guide to Schools Workshops 

Remember that big guide to local schools we publish every year? Well, we’re hosting not one, not two, but three (!) workshops in the coming months to help parents digest the data and make informed decisions about their kids’ education. Have a question about chronic absenteeism? Universal transitional kindergarten? Have a tip? Come by and say hi!  

Follow this link and scroll to the bottom of the page to check out the upcoming dates and to RSVP. 

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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1 Comment

  1. Test scores may be flawed to compare unlike schools or districts to each other, but your (and Will’s) work to correct for socioeconomic factors makes them far more useful. Thanks for that.

    With that, however, test scores are certainly relevant when comparing a school or district to itself. It’s very unlikely a school or district’s makeup will change significantly year-over-year, which means if scores are staying the same or declining that is a pretty solid indication that education there is not getting better….

    In a rational world, we might expect that our Superintendent, Tony Thurmond, would advocate for holding districts responsible for improving their own performance. When does he show up at a board meeting to lambast a district for failing to improve education, as he does districts who simply want to exercise local control to implement it’s own parent notification policy for kids struggling with mental health issues?

    Not holding my breath on that.

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