When Kathy Taylor toured Jefferson Elementary in North Park, she wondered, “Is this really my neighborhood school?”

It didn’t look like the crowds at summer concerts she attends on the northern edge of Balboa Park, where families picnic to the backdrop of the downtown skyline. Most of the Jefferson students were poor. Many were still learning English.

Jefferson Elementary is indeed her neighborhood school. But more than half of the public school students who live in the North Park neighborhood around Jefferson Elementary don’t go there, and that doesn’t include many other families who choose private schools. Scores of other families from outside of the area go out of their way to get into Jefferson.

Taylor, a public school graduate, ended up sending her child to private school.

“I wanted this feeling of community. But what we have is not a community,” she said. “Everybody is sending their kids to other places.”


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

These strange patterns can be traced by race: Dozens of white families who live blocks from the school do not send their kids there, often choosing schools just a mile or two away with higher test scores. Dozens of Latino families who live elsewhere do, saying they love this school.

Alicia Sanchez initially transferred her children to a new school when she moved to Grant Hill. “But we didn’t like it. It had less discipline,” she explained in Spanish. “We came back to Jefferson.”

San Diego Unified is supposed to integrate its schools. It has a slew of different programs that let parents choose schools, some aimed specifically at integration, some just at offering families more choice. Throwing all schools open to all students might seem to be a recipe for diversity.

As this little school in North Park reveals, that hasn’t always happened. If every public schooler in the neighborhood went to Jefferson, the school would almost mirror San Diego Unified as a whole — roughly half Latino, about a fourth white, a sixth African-American, the rest a mix of other races.

The kids who actually come to Jefferson are mostly Latino and African-American. The vast majority are poor enough to get free lunches.

This eclectic stretch of North Park ranges from stately homes that overlook Morley Field to dense apartments along University Avenue. But when parents in this seemingly integrated neighborhood went through a school selection process, they ended up resegregating themselves.

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Photo by Sam Hodgson
Matt and Susanne Thompson, who live just blocks from Jefferson, chose to send their kids to nearby Einstein Elementary, because it offers German.

 

Gone are the days when every child just went to their neighborhood school. Almost 44 percent of San Diego Unified students choose another school instead.

Many parents no longer see the local school as the default at all.

Matt Thompson never really looked at Jefferson. His wife is German and they longed for a school that would nurture their children as bilingual. They chose a nearby charter school, Einstein Elementary, because it offered German instruction.

Parents now have a host of options when it comes time to decide where to send their children.

After San Diego got slammed in court for segregation in the ‘70s, it designed integration busing and magnet schools to mix students of different colors. Parents can also, like Thompson, shoot for a charter school or even just pick another school if they can get their kids there in the morning.

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Those two goals of integration and choice have sometimes clashed. A voiceofsandiego.org analysis found that in some San Diego schools, choice has actually deepened segregation.

That can end up isolating the neediest children: In San Diego, poor children live in neighborhoods where about a third of children are poor, but they go to schools where more than half of students are poor, packing the problems of poverty into schools, according to one national study.

Integration backers argue that diversity isn’t just a Kumbaya cause: It ensures poor children of color get exposed to more of the same things as wealthy white children. But many San Diegans have grown disenchanted with seeing the achievement gap persist while students of color spend hours on buses.

“All the supposed benefits of busing could be achieved by simply integrating the neighborhood school,” argued school board President Richard Barrera, “in a neighborhood that is already diverse.”

San Diego Unified is now paring back on busing and encouraging families to go to their neighborhood school. But parents are still free to choose other schools and drive their kids themselves. So the question remains: Will parents buy into neighborhood schooling or not? What will it take to change their habits?

It is a mystery to Elaine Saville.

When the longtime educator shows off Jefferson Elementary to families eyeing the school — usually white parents who speak English — she proudly leads them to classrooms to tout their Spanish lessons, teachers trained in working with gifted children, Family Fridays and more.

“I always have such a positive feeling,” Saville said. “But many of them don’t choose us.”

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Photo by Sam Hodgson
Rosa Orozco reads with her daughter Kalei Rittal (left) and classmate Fernanda Nava.

 

Rosa Orozco is puzzled that any parent wouldn’t choose her school.

She was all smiles on a June evening as Jefferson was abuzz with the chatter of children. The kids earnestly expounded on illiteracy in Guatemala, explained how coral bleaching works, even delved into the motivations of animal poachers.

“It’s a common stereotype that poachers are uneducated, but really only some of them are,” fifth grader Daniel Naranjo explained to adults, displaying graphs of ivory prices and the number of rhinos poached.

It was the annual exhibition for fifth graders, an elementary school capstone to the International Baccalaureate curriculum that requires youngsters to reflect on global concerns. Principal Francisco Morga strolled through classrooms proudly. This is one of the things he loves about Jefferson.

“We’re not just teaching them academics,” Morga said. “We’re teaching them to be global citizens.”

That was why Orozco came here. The single mom picked Jefferson over nearby Garfield Elementary a few years ago and now works in its preschool and heads its PTA. She found it more welcoming to parents, less narrowly focused on test scores. Jefferson, she said, prepares kids for life.

But parents do not always see those things from the outside. What they can see are test scores.

Almost all of the public school families in the neighborhood who don’t send their children to Jefferson send them to schools with higher scores — Birney, McKinley, Florence, the nearby Einstein charter school.

The frustration for Jefferson is it also has more English learners than those higher-scoring schools — an obvious disadvantage on English tests. It actually scores above-average compared to similar schools.

Then there’s the marketing.

For some parents, Jefferson is good, but somewhere else was just better. Jefferson has the International Baccalaureate program, but so do other nearby schools. Einstein teaches German. San Diego Cooperative Charter requires parents to volunteer.

And Jefferson just doesn’t look as nice from the outside. The little school is located behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken on University Avenue. It has a vast dusty field that Morga can’t wait to get replaced; he keeps a big drawing in his office showing what Jefferson will look like when its new field is finished.

Andy Pendoley is still scoping out schools for his two preschoolers.

He wants to help Jefferson and North Park thrive by enrolling his kids there. But the test scores still worry him as he thinks about his kids competing to get into college someday. Other parents fret about its lackluster fields.

Part of its draw, though, is its preschool: Unlike some of the neighboring schools, Jefferson has a public preschool for families with limited incomes. Many build bonds with teachers and decide to stay.

Lisa Hazelden sent her kids there for preschool and didn’t see any reason to pull them from teachers they already loved. “The scores may not be the highest,” she said. “But my kids seem to do well.”

Giving parents like Pendoley and Hazelden the power to choose schools has been at the heart of school reform for decades. But when New York author Peg Tyre took a hard look at that idea, she realized there was a big problem. Parents — even wealthy parents — don’t necessarily know how to choose schools.

Choosing a school isn’t the logical market that Milton Friedman envisioned, where parents reward the strongest schools, Tyre said. Families turn to test scores or an “echo chamber” of fellow parents. Both can mislead them.

And here in North Park, those choices have ended up dividing them more deeply.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

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    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Community, Education, Neighborhoods, News

    Written by Emily Alpert

    33 comments
    cole macy
    cole macy subscriber

    Don't these parents think Spanish would be a more useful language than German. I mean, we are in San Diego. Even if the first German settlers called it the "Whale's Vagina." ha.

    moleman619
    moleman619

    Don't these parents think Spanish would be a more useful language than German. I mean, we are in San Diego. Even if the first German settlers called it the "Whale's Vagina." ha.

    VeronicaCorningstone
    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    I am confused that you didn't want to send your child to a school where a large percentage of students were learning in a second language, but sent your child to a language immersion school. Aren't the majority of children at Einstein learning in a foreign language?

    VeronicaCorningstone
    VeronicaCorningstone

    I am confused that you didn't want to send your child to a school where a large percentage of students were learning in a second language, but sent your child to a language immersion school. Aren't the majority of children at Einstein learning in a foreign language?

    Scott Kelley
    Scott Kelley subscriber

    BTW, Einstein also teaches "global citizenry" and certainly celebrates German and American culture. Are these mutually exclusive? I sure hope not for the sake of our kids. Being a proud American is one thing. But be a nationalist and an ignoramus about the rest of the world? Well, that is probably why the USA is stuck in two endless wars.

    skelley
    skelley

    BTW, Einstein also teaches "global citizenry" and certainly celebrates German and American culture. Are these mutually exclusive? I sure hope not for the sake of our kids. Being a proud American is one thing. But be a nationalist and an ignoramus about the rest of the world? Well, that is probably why the USA is stuck in two endless wars.

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    j-head: I agree with and value everything you wrote, with one possible exception. As a member of this community I worry that parents who choose to "continue educating their children in the benefits of white privilege by busing their kids north" are depriving those children of precisely the experiences they will need to succeed as adults in our increasingly-diverse society. It may not matter to you specifically, but it should matter to all of us in the longer perspective.

    fryefan
    fryefan

    j-head: I agree with and value everything you wrote, with one possible exception. As a member of this community I worry that parents who choose to "continue educating their children in the benefits of white privilege by busing their kids north" are depriving those children of precisely the experiences they will need to succeed as adults in our increasingly-diverse society. It may not matter to you specifically, but it should matter to all of us in the longer perspective.

    John Blanco
    John Blanco subscribermember

    mon dreams. There is not a single case of bullying at the school, nor has there been since my daughter entered the preschool. Now, if self-identified white people want to continue educating their children in the benefits of white privilege by busing their kids north, what is that to me? That has nothing to do with our community, our collective struggles and our collective aspirations. As long as they continue paying property taxes for living here, they can spend their private income on private schools, private resorts, and who knows what all else. My skin is brown, I'm a professor, and my family's future lies with Birney and the struggling, never-say-die neighborhoods and communities that the city and state have never ceased to let down.

    j-head
    j-head

    mon dreams. There is not a single case of bullying at the school, nor has there been since my daughter entered the preschool. Now, if self-identified white people want to continue educating their children in the benefits of white privilege by busing their kids north, what is that to me? That has nothing to do with our community, our collective struggles and our collective aspirations. As long as they continue paying property taxes for living here, they can spend their private income on private schools, private resorts, and who knows what all else. My skin is brown, I'm a professor, and my family's future lies with Birney and the struggling, never-say-die neighborhoods and communities that the city and state have never ceased to let down.

    aaryn belfer
    aaryn belfer subscriber

    Jefferson is looking better and better every day. It's got a large facelift happening and test scores are up. It's a good school with dedicated teachers and as it improves, white people are going to want to send their kids there. And once SDUSD finishes the gutting of busing, many of the brown kids will have to go back to their neighborhood schools, and the white parents of North Park can begin their white flight back in. Just watch them take their now-desirable school back from those who stuck it out to make it something that white folks would actually want.

    aaryn b
    aaryn b

    Jefferson is looking better and better every day. It's got a large facelift happening and test scores are up. It's a good school with dedicated teachers and as it improves, white people are going to want to send their kids there. And once SDUSD finishes the gutting of busing, many of the brown kids will have to go back to their neighborhood schools, and the white parents of North Park can begin their white flight back in. Just watch them take their now-desirable school back from those who stuck it out to make it something that white folks would actually want.

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    The new park and play area adjacent to the school will help. Sounds strange, but when the school looks like it has more support from the outside parents outside the echo chamber may have greater reason to make the choice. It's hard to blame parents whose focus is rightly on the success of THEIR children. And when you see what the (also very diverse) student body and PTC accomplishes down at McKinley it's a hard choice. Principal Morga has only had a couple years to work with, so the growth and improvement is building with his leadership. I hope Emily is around to do a follow-up in 5 years.

    omarpassons
    omarpassons

    The new park and play area adjacent to the school will help. Sounds strange, but when the school looks like it has more support from the outside parents outside the echo chamber may have greater reason to make the choice. It's hard to blame parents whose focus is rightly on the success of THEIR children. And when you see what the (also very diverse) student body and PTC accomplishes down at McKinley it's a hard choice. Principal Morga has only had a couple years to work with, so the growth and improvement is building with his leadership. I hope Emily is around to do a follow-up in 5 years.

    Corey Johnston
    Corey Johnston subscriber

    d ended up partying away their education to somehow make up for their lack of connection, dedication and self-awareness. Those aren't things schools with high test scores automatically provide. If things are becoming more segregated, that doesn't say anything about the schools--that's a comment on the parents, believe me. I've seen the effects.

    Coreyart
    Coreyart

    d ended up partying away their education to somehow make up for their lack of connection, dedication and self-awareness. Those aren't things schools with high test scores automatically provide. If things are becoming more segregated, that doesn't say anything about the schools--that's a comment on the parents, believe me. I've seen the effects.

    John de Beck
    John de Beck subscriber

    This situation is the intent of Shelia Jackson and other boardmembers who won't agree that an integrated society is better and that learning to get along starts in the schools! Shelia thirsts for all the Federal Title One money, and doesn't really believe that the benefits of integration are more than test scores. But if she gets her way, the schools will not really improve because it isn't just spending, but peer pressure to succeed that maks kids successful. OF COURSE she has support from biased parents who don't want their kids to go to school with "kids who are different!" losing the integration program is a step back for San Diego...but some folks just don't get it!

    deBeck
    deBeck

    This situation is the intent of Shelia Jackson and other boardmembers who won't agree that an integrated society is better and that learning to get along starts in the schools! Shelia thirsts for all the Federal Title One money, and doesn't really believe that the benefits of integration are more than test scores. But if she gets her way, the schools will not really improve because it isn't just spending, but peer pressure to succeed that maks kids successful. OF COURSE she has support from biased parents who don't want their kids to go to school with "kids who are different!" losing the integration program is a step back for San Diego...but some folks just don't get it!

    Heather Poland
    Heather Poland subscriber

    Good article. However, if everyone in San Diego went back to their neighborhood school, many schools would actually be even more segregated. Yes, some like Jefferson, would be more diverse, but in reality people live in different area according to their income level. And I, for one, am GLAD you did not include test scores. Test scores are only a reflection of socio-economic status. High test scores do not mean better teaching, and low test scores also do not mean poor teaching. They are a much better indicator of "wealth". What we need is TRUE desegregation where each school would have a certain percentage of each ethnicity AND income level.

    hpoland
    hpoland

    Good article. However, if everyone in San Diego went back to their neighborhood school, many schools would actually be even more segregated. Yes, some like Jefferson, would be more diverse, but in reality people live in different area according to their income level. And I, for one, am GLAD you did not include test scores. Test scores are only a reflection of socio-economic status. High test scores do not mean better teaching, and low test scores also do not mean poor teaching. They are a much better indicator of "wealth". What we need is TRUE desegregation where each school would have a certain percentage of each ethnicity AND income level.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Here's the deal. Take it or leave it, as you wish. The answer to your prayers lies in the aboad.: your home. What you as a parent do is more important than what happens in the classroom, in many cases. If you take your kid to the park, if you take your kid to the opera, if you take your kid ANYWHERE, your kid wins! The school is, relatively, secondary to your efforts. Mom or Dad or Abuela counts like nothing else! Each child has a mind of their own and that mind must be appreciated. School? Eh? Come, on! It's the effort at home that counts. The effort at home that has always counted. What you do as a parent is paramount to the success of your child. They WANT to perform to YOU.

    kidscoach
    kidscoach

    Here's the deal. Take it or leave it, as you wish. The answer to your prayers lies in the aboad.: your home. What you as a parent do is more important than what happens in the classroom, in many cases. If you take your kid to the park, if you take your kid to the opera, if you take your kid ANYWHERE, your kid wins! The school is, relatively, secondary to your efforts. Mom or Dad or Abuela counts like nothing else! Each child has a mind of their own and that mind must be appreciated. School? Eh? Come, on! It's the effort at home that counts. The effort at home that has always counted. What you do as a parent is paramount to the success of your child. They WANT to perform to YOU.

    mel luce
    mel luce subscriber

    People are dancing around. Who is willing to leave their children in a school that has the perception as not being good, when a 10 minute drive can get them into a "better" school? We want what we perceive to be the best for our children within our means. What this really means is if the Latino parents had the information and the ability, they too would probably move their kids too. I do.

    grovian
    grovian

    People are dancing around. Who is willing to leave their children in a school that has the perception as not being good, when a 10 minute drive can get them into a "better" school? We want what we perceive to be the best for our children within our means. What this really means is if the Latino parents had the information and the ability, they too would probably move their kids too. I do.

    VeronicaCorningstone
    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    Also, if you look at test scores based on the education level of the parents, the child of college educated parents will most likely do fine.

    VeronicaCorningstone
    VeronicaCorningstone

    Also, if you look at test scores based on the education level of the parents, the child of college educated parents will most likely do fine.

    America Milonguera
    America Milonguera subscriber

    I also lament the lack of neighborhood connection that the current system promotes. There are 4 boys my son's age on the block and they go to 3 different schools - with different schedules (none of them to Jefferson) so after school playing is a challenge - especially since one of the schools is year round. Trying to play with children from school is even more difficult since they come from all over the county. So the impacts on children reach further than just the classroom.

    TangoMom
    TangoMom

    I also lament the lack of neighborhood connection that the current system promotes. There are 4 boys my son's age on the block and they go to 3 different schools - with different schedules (none of them to Jefferson) so after school playing is a challenge - especially since one of the schools is year round. Trying to play with children from school is even more difficult since they come from all over the county. So the impacts on children reach further than just the classroom.

    FreedomPlease
    FreedomPlease

    Schools need to be more open to their neighbors(hoods). They need to be inviting, with much shared use, best bang for our tax dollars. Thanks for you great reporting Emily. Any relation to DeDe?? daniel_beeman@yahoo.com

    mel luce
    mel luce subscriber

    This is nothing new so I'm surprised that anyone is surprised. It's just like Bilingual education, they get the wrong information from people with agendas that they think they can trust, but shouldn't.

    grovian
    grovian

    This is nothing new so I'm surprised that anyone is surprised. It's just like Bilingual education, they get the wrong information from people with agendas that they think they can trust, but shouldn't.