For years, some San Diego Unified schools have struggled to convince neighborhood families to enroll their kids. The difficulty getting local students in the door wasn’t helped by the district’s robust choice system, which made it easy for parents to opt their children out and enroll them in a school they felt was more desirable. But even after a pledge to ensure every neighborhood had a quality school and attempts to get kids to stick with their home school, many San Diego Unified high schools are having trouble keeping kids from pursuing other options. And the schools having the most trouble aren’t new to this problem.
Back in 2015, San Diego Unified put out a list that showed how many students chose to attend their neighborhood middle and high school in the 2014 – 2015 school year. One thing that jumped out was that schools in poorer neighborhoods tended to have lower rates of neighborhood enrollment.
Based on data from last school year, not a whole lot has changed.
There’s been some shuffling around, but all of the schools in the top and bottom halves are still where they were back in 2014.
Schools in poorer neighborhoods, like Lincoln and Crawford, still had the fewest number of neighborhood students attending their schools. The only school with lower neighborhood enrollment rates is Logan Memorial Educational Complex, which wasn’t around in 2014. Madison, Clairemont, the Kearny Complex of small schools, San Diego, Hoover and Morse rounded out the other spots in the bottom half.
Schools in wealthier areas like La Jolla and Scripps Ranch still drew the most neighborhood students, though Scripps has now usurped the number one spot. University City, Point Loma, Canyon Hills, Mira Mesa, Henry and Mission Bay occupied the other top spots.
The gulf between the top and the bottom is extreme. At Scripps Ranch, 93 percent of students in the neighborhood attended the school. But at Logan Memorial, which last year only served ninth graders, just 28 percent of the grade-appropriate students attended.
San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera, whose subdistrict includes Logan Memorial, thinks part of the school’s low neighborhood participation is simply due to how new it is. The school, which features a preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school, opened its doors just last year. It’s rolling out new grades each year and just welcomed its first tenth grade class.
Many students are still given the option to attend what would have been their old neighborhood school, San Diego High. But Barrera said they’ve seen a huge number of students enrolling in lower grades, which gives them confidence that by the time they matriculate to high school, the school will be at capacity.
The brand-new school, the most expensive in San Diego Unified’s history, replaced what was once the school parents avoided the most. When the high school opened last year, Barrera told me the school must deliver on its promise offering a quality education if it hopes to keep enrollment up.
“If we don’t deliver on the programmatic side then … word will get out in the community as well,” Barrera continued. “And, I think we’ll go back to a situation where people say, ‘well, it’s a beautiful set of buildings, but we don’t think our kids are getting what they need there.’”
For the high schools with the lowest neighborhood attendance rates, parents are enrolling kids in charter schools. At both Lincoln and Logan Memorial, for example, more students attend charters than attend their neighborhood school.
But the decision not to send students to their neighborhood school doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s an incredibly strong correlation between the percentage of students at a school meeting state English and math standards and the number of students from the neighborhood who choose to attend a school. The higher the test scores, the more likely students are to attend neighborhood schools, and vice versa.
Barrera thinks that while test scores could play a role in parent’s choices, a school’s reputation is far more important. For schools who have high neighborhood participation rates, Barrera said “I don’t think their reputation is that standardized test scores are high, it’s about the really strong programming and the sense of school community.”
But Barrera is skeptical test scores alone can capture how well a school is doing. He said they reinforce a cycle of the most engaged parents moving their children out, which leads to the lowering of test scores. He also said they generally do a better job of determining demographics and socioeconomic factors like the income of the communities they serve. That last point is true. Test scores are an imperfect measure that closely correlate with the income of a school’s community.
Still, despite the disparities, some schools made strides. San Diego and Hoover increased their neighborhood enrollment rate by about 20 and 17 percent respectively. Scripps Ranch saw theirs shoot up by about 13 percent.
Overall, slightly more students attend their neighborhood high school than they used to. Back in the 2014 – 2015 school year, about 52 percent of students went to their neighborhood high school. By last year, that figure had climbed to about 60 percent.
It’s not a monumental increase, but it is something.