Mission Bay High
Mission Bay High School / File photo by Dustin Michelson

Mission Bay High is something of an oddity. For at least a decade, data shows that only somewhere between 500 and 600 students have lived in the San Diego Unified high school’s attendance boundary. No big deal, you may think. That just means the high school is extra small compared to others in the district. But that’s where you’d be wrong.

State data shows that Mission Bay had nearly 1,200 students last year. That’s because about 61 percent of the students come from elsewhere in the district. That’s actually down from 69 percent back in 2014.

We’ve covered this anomaly for years and it still sparks our interest.

Mission Bay High’s Appeal

How did the high school appeal to so many non-local students, you might ask? By adding a little bit of “sizzle,” said former San Diego Unified board member Scott Barnett, whose subdistrict included the Mission Bay cluster.

That sizzle, Barnett said, was achieved in two ways. First, school officials would create unique educational opportunities. Second, they would make what Barnett called infrastructure improvements. The strategies, which began even before Barnett was elected in 2010, were meant to both convince neighborhood families to send their kids to Mission Bay instead of performance juggernauts like La Jolla High up the coast, and to draw students from outside the school’s attendance boundaries. After all, 600 kids isn’t enough to fill a high school.

The infrastructure improvements included a new field that designed to rival any other in the district and eventual campus renovations. (Voice of San Diego has previously covered how the district prioritized  stadium construction over classroom renovations, even while classroom ceilings leaked.)

The programmatic draws include Mission Bay’s renowned jazz band that performs in Japan each year and the prestigious International Baccalaureate curriculum. The school is one of only two San Diego Unified high schools to offer the curriculum.

But the efforts weren’t limited to Mission Bay High. A popular Mandarin immersion program was relocated to Mission Bay feeder school Barnard Elementary from the Point Loma cluster, where neighborhood students were more plentiful. The cluster’s Crown Point Junior Music Academy also draws families from outside the neighborhood. By funneling students into these unique programs at an early age, the hope is that they would stick around and attend Mission Bay High, much like the district’s hope with its UTK program.

“Beyond just relying on a very successful high school and improving the programs there, there has been … a lot of work by a lot of people over a lot of years,” Barnett said. “The goal was to build the foundation of a cluster where families who live there say … ‘look at my neighborhood opportunities, this is a great place for my kids to stay and go to school,’” he said.

In 2022, Mission Bay High drew around 74 percent of neighborhood kids to enroll. That’s not a perfect result. It places the high school in the middle of the pack when it comes to the district’s neighborhood enrollment rates. Some high schools draw nearly all neighborhood kids, like Scripps Ranch where 93 percent of local kids attend. But that 2022 number is an increase of around 10 percentage points since 2014.

But Mission Bay’s choice-heavy enrollment represents a tension in district philosophy. One the one hand, San Diego Unified has tried to create a quality school in every neighborhood in part, so kids will attend their local schools. The district, however, spent many earlier years encouraging the opposite. District officials encouraged parents to “choice” into schools outside their neighborhood. Despite the more recent push for strong neighborhood schools, Mission Bay High must continue to try to draw students from outside its boundaries, given the limited local population of students.

“To a certain extent this cuts against the grain of our effort to invest in neighborhood schools, but at the same time it’s a success story,” said current board member Cody Petterson, who was elected in 2022 to represent Barnett’s former subdistrict. “The district has done some admirable work in confronting a demographic reality with really high-quality, specialized and compelling programming that students and families love … and that allows us to maintain school sites that we might otherwise not have been able to maintain.”

What We’re Writing

The same high schools parents avoided eight years ago – ones with low test scores and high rates of poverty – are still struggling to increase enrollment from neighboring households.  

Last year, data from the 2022 school year was released. There are a few upsides, like a reduction in chronic absenteeism. But test scores at San Diego Unified are still much lower than they were before the pandemic.

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

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1 Comment

  1. What percentage of the “non-neighborhood” students attending MBHS come from neighboring Clairemont, and what impact does that have on enrollment and programmatic opportunities at Clairemont High and Madison High? (Short answer is “a lot.”)

    Ditto for University City High School (and Standley Middle). How many students would these schools have without allowing large numbers of non-neighborhood students–predominantly from Clairemont–to attend? UCHS doesn’t have an IB program (or dual-language program in its community of schools), Japan trips, etc, but it and its feeder, Standley Middle, have much higher student achievement (test scores).

    And a little history: MBHS had problems retaining its neighborhood students, who preferred La Jolla High and even private schools. Much of the “sizzle” was developed to retain neighborhood students, but MBHS’s designation as a magnet school provided–and continues to provide–these opportunities to students from other areas in the district and higher school enrollment.

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