Southeastern San Diego has long been a center of the region’s Black population. That’s no accident. A practice known as redlining, which allowed banks to reject home loans because of race, income and neighborhood, ensured Black families were only able to buy homes in certain parts of the city. Southeastern San Diego was one of those places.
One of the focal points of southeastern San Diego’s Black community was its high school, Lincoln High. It opened in the 1950s and a decade later its student population was 80 percent Black.
The high school became an important front in the long battle for basic Civil Rights. In 1969, students demanded changes to the high school, like increased academic standards. In response to a massive student walkout that shut down the campus for a week and a half, district leaders caved to most of the students’ demands. The district also appointed Ernest Hartzog as the principal of Lincoln. He was the first Black principal at any high school in San Diego County.
Beyond being an athletic powerhouse that’s produced some of San Diego’s most storied athletes, the school has an outsized footprint in the community. Francine Maxwell, the former president of the San Diego branch of the NAACP, who has for years volunteered in local schools like Lincoln, called the high school a treasure.
But, as has been the case for decades, southeastern San Diego, and Lincoln, are becoming less Black. In the 2007-2008 school year, Lincoln had 917 Black students. Last year it had just 272.
That’s a 70 percent decline over the past 15 years.
Lincoln, like public schools across the state, has been grappling with enrollment decline. The school’s student population has shrunk significantly in the past 15 years, from about 2,300 to about 1,400. But even given the shrinkage, the decline of Black students stands out. During the same period, the percentage of students at the school who are Black decreased from about 40 percent to 19 percent.
“Our African American population at Morse and Lincoln used to be much higher,” said Maxwell, whose daughter graduated from Lincoln a decade ago.
To Maxwell, part of what’s happening is that Black families are steering their kids away from the high school and toward options like charter schools partly because of Lincoln’s history of low academic performance. It is true that Lincoln has long been one of the San Diego Unified schools parents most avoided – last year less than a third of neighborhood parents sent their children to Lincoln. More parents also sent their children to charter schools than the high school.
Still, that trend doesn’t explain larger countywide demographic shifts, namely that the changing face of Lincoln isn’t an isolated occurrence, it’s representative of a broader shakeup in San Diego County’s student population.
Over the last 15 years, the number of Black students in county schools has decreased by 44 percent. That amounts to about 15,000 fewer Black students countywide. But Like Lincoln’s enrollment, the drop can’t simply be explained by the larger picture of public-school enrollment decline. During the same period, the county’s total number of students only shrunk by about four percent.
But Black students aren’t the only who’ve seen significant drops in the number of students in county schools. The number of White students has dropped, but not nearly as much as other demographics. The number of Indigenous students, for example, has decreased by 43 percent and the number of Pacific Islander students has decreased by a whopping 58 percent. The only ethnicities to see increases in the past 15 years were Latino and Asian students.
Census data also shows that the county’s overall population hasn’t shifted in the same way over the intervening years. So, what gives?
Some of the answer may be found in a designation that’s shot up over the past 15 years, said former San Diego State University professor John Weeks: students who identify as multiple races.
“How people identify themselves is truly changing and I think that’s one of the big issues here,” Weeks said. “Mixed identity is becoming much more common.”
Since 2007, the number of students who identify as multiple races or whose race is not reported has nearly tripled, from about 13,000 to about 36,000. The increase at some districts has been staggering. In 2007, San Diego Unified didn’t list a single student as being of two or more races back. Last year, nearly 10,000 San Diego Unified students, or about 9 percent of the district’s total enrollment, identified as two or more races or not reported.
During that same time, the district’s Black student population shrunk by about 9,000 students – a 52 percent decline. While in 2007, Black students accounted for about 14 percent of the district’s student population, last year they only made up around 8 percent.
Census data also shows steep increases in the number of individuals who identify as multiracial. From 2010 to 2020, the number of residents countywide who described themselves as two or more races tripled.
But it also seems as if there may simply be fewer Black students countywide because there are fewer Black children than there used to be. Declining birth rates, and the declining public school enrollment that comes from fewer kids, has been stressing out education officials for years. The fewer students there are, the less money schools get to educate children.
But in San Diego County, Weeks said, the birth rates of Black families have dropped even quicker than overall birth rates. Over the past 20 years, he said, census data shows the number of births in San Diego has dropped by about 18 percent, while the number of Black births has dropped by about 37 percent.
“When we get to the school age population, we get down to the issue of the declining birth rate … Every year coming into every grade there are just fewer students than there were before,” Weeks said. “And the more rapidly declining birth rates of the Black population is clearly affecting school enrollment.”
But Maxwell thinks there’s something else going on as well. Even if census data doesn’t show it, she said Black families are increasingly looking out of state for new opportunities. She knows people who have moved to Dallas, Houston and Kansas City to find someplace more affordable.
“Families want to buy a home and can’t afford the sunshine tax,” Maxwell said.