Five years after San Diego Unified made quality neighborhood schools its No. 1 priority, those schools aren’t holding on to any more kids than they did when the effort began, a new report shows.

The San Diego Unified school board set a goal in 2011 that would come to define its big, overarching vision for the decade: By the year 2020, every neighborhood will have a quality school.

One way to measure that: More students would choose their closest neighborhood schools instead of opting into schools in other neighborhoods. The district would not end the choice program, which allows students to attend schools farther away from their homes. Rather, neighborhood schools would become so attractive that parents would want their kids to attend.

That was the hope. But a new study from University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law shows 42 percent of parents across the district choose to send their kids to schools outside their neighborhoods. That’s about the same percentage of students as 2011.

Meanwhile, a growing number of families have opted instead for charter schools. This year about 18 percent of the district’s students attend charter schools, according to the study, and that number has steadily risen in the past five years. (Charter schools are not considered neighborhood schools, though they can serve kids living in the surrounding neighborhood.)

Now the school board and district staff members are devising plans to reverse the trends. They’re looking to spend bond money building new schools, renovating old ones and adding more online courses to capture a growing share of the market.

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But the 2020 deadline doesn’t give the district much time to let those measures take hold.

Who Chooses to Leave

To appreciate the district’s challenge, you have to understand the element of parent choice.

Any parent can choose to send their children to schools outside of their neighborhood, space permitting. Certain students, like those coming from schools that have struggled to make academic progress under federal standards, get preference for which schools like they’d to attend.

For decades, this has created a mostly one-way migration from schools in the south and east to schools in the north and west.

By 2011, parents and district leaders began to chafe at the assumption that students had to leave their neighborhoods in order to get a quality education.

So the board crafted the plan called Vision 2020 – a sweeping blueprint for how the district would put a quality school in every neighborhood.

They started by defining 12 elements of a quality schools – things like quality teachers, strong leadership and a high neighborhood attendance rate. (In a presentation this year, district staff members said the goal for quality schools was to enroll at least 80 percent of all the students from the neighborhood.)

Keeping kids close to home is an easier choice for parents who live in La Jolla. Nearly 95 percent of age-appropriate students who live within the boundaries of Muirlands Middle school in La Jolla choose to attend their neighborhood school. More than 90 percent of neighborhood students go on to attend La Jolla High, the high school Muirlands feed into.

Contrast that with Lincoln High, 20 miles to La Jolla’s southeast. There, 72 percent of all students leave the Lincoln cluster by the time they get to high school.

It’s a similar story in Logan Heights. Last year, 80 percent of families chose avoid their neighborhood school, Memorial Prep. It is the most avoided school in the district.

District staff members have not responded to questions about the CEPAL study. But a report they presented in January shows they use a different method for calculating attendance rates – their method gives higher averages of those attending neighborhood schools than those listed in the CEPAL report.

The district’s method focuses on “clusters” – groups of elementary and middle schools that feed into a high school. There are 16 clusters in San Diego Unified, divided by geographic boundaries. Individual schools also have boundaries, which determine where students will be pulled from.

If students do not attend their assigned school, but attend a school within the cluster, the district still counts them as attending a neighborhood school.

CEPAL researchers, on the other hand, defined “neighborhood school” as the ones students are assigned.

Julie Cramer, a senior research associate at USD and lead author on the study, said calculating rates this way more accurately illustrates the choice parents are making: choosing to send their kids to any school other than the assigned neighborhood school.

Besides, Cramer said, the district set out on a plan to create a quality school in every neighborhood – which isn’t the same as a quality school in every cluster.

To Close or Not to Close

According to the study, the biggest drop in neighborhood attendance rates happens between elementary school and middle school. That is, many parents send their children to nearby elementary schools, but look for other options as they enter middle school.

While the rates are mostly flat across clusters, the Mission Bay cluster improved its attendance rates by closing a neighborhood school, Bayview Terrace Elementary. Neighborhood attendance rates at Bayview remained low, so closing it improved the average.

The district might be able to close the attendance gap in other clusters if it closed more poorly attended schools.

Closing schools, however, is profoundly controversial. Between 2005 and 2011, confronted with a looming budget deficit and shrinking enrollment districtwide, the school board explored the possibility of closing various schools as a cost-saving measure. In most cases, trustees changed their minds after parents and teachers protested.

Trustee Richard Barrera said he’s deeply skeptical of the proposed benefits of school closures.

“I think closing a school is always going to be an option of last resort. We know that this kind of magic bullet approach – close down schools and send kids to ‘better’ schools – is a false notion. All you’re doing is eliminating options for kids,” Barrera said.

Trustee John Lee Evans said he hasn’t seen the CEPAL study, but agrees that neighborhood school attendance has been mostly flat in the last five years. Evans said it’s too early to see the results of the work that’s been under way.

“It is important to not come to a premature judgment. We would not have a goal to have high-quality schools in every neighborhood by 2020 if we believed that we were already there,” Evans said.

New Facilities, Better Marketing

The district is looking to stave off further loss of its students, in large part, by investing bond money in poorly attended schools, hoping new facilities and programs will draw students back to the neighborhoods.

In Logan Heights, for example, the district is planning to raze and rebuild the Memorial Prep campus for upward of $100 million.

There’s some evidence that parents choose schools, at least in part, based on the quality of a school’s facility. But it’s impossible not to consider that just nine years ago, the district rebuilt Lincoln High’s campus for $129 million and today the school is severely under-enrolled.

Moving forward, the district is also looking to convert high school libraries into resource centers where students can take online classes for remediation or independent studies, because “that’s where the market is,” said David Vande Pol, the district’s new director of online learning.

District officials hope the resource centers will also serve as welcome centers for parents looking for information about the schools.

And the district hopes to highlight all of these efforts with improved marketing that showcases what neighborhood schools have to offer. Last year, the district coined a new slogan to bolster the effort: Rediscover San Diego Unified schools.

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, Neighborhood Schools

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    SherryS subscriber

    San Diego Unified should be doing a scientific survey of why parents choose not to send their children to SDUSD neighborhood schools - whether that means choicing them into another school in SDUSD, sending them to private school or moving to another public school district. It may be because parents think the teachers are better in another school. It may be because another school offers advanced classes. It may be because they want their children to have more economically advantaged peers. It may be, as the current school board seems to think, that they want a better facility. Until we collect the data, we don't know. And any money spent trying to reverse the trend, is probably wasted.

    Amanda Hammond-Williams
    Amanda Hammond-Williams subscriber

    I'm going to go out on a limb again on this forum and say ... if your neighborhood school has figured out how to attract its residents then it is successful.  When I first started as principal at Birney most of our residents who wanted to leave the area did - I even encountered a parent who told me that we would never get kids back from Benchley or Grant.  But 14 years later we did indeed attract a lot of resident families back to Birney, we are a success story, we are nipping at the heels of Grant, our science scores are up among the highest, and we don't even look at Benchley because it is not even relevant.  I am not a fan of the neighborhood schools movement, but I do believe that if every neighborhood school offered art, music and PE, along with a viable curriculum similar to our IB PYP curriculum, families would opt in to their neighborhood school.  It's a no-brainer!

    richard gibson
    richard gibson subscriber

    In any segregated city, neighborhood schools mean segregated schools--by class, race, etc. Honing in on the small picture misses the big one. Any society writhing in inequality, commonly color coded, and promising the world perpetual war is going to make seemingly peculiar demands on schools. In WWI, a top general called for schools as human munition factories. Today?

    Brian Edmonston
    Brian Edmonston

    @Kathy S

    Doing some quick math using the data you provided, the number of students located near high schools with at least 73% of the residents attending* is ~13,000 students.  

    On the other hand, the number of students located near high schools with less than 73% of residents attending is ~25,000.  

    So, you have twice as many students at "out-flow" schools than at "in-flow" schools.

    I don't see how you can "spread out" two thirds (2/3) of the students to one-third (1/3) of the school capacity.  It does not add up.  

    You need to fix the schools that are not performing to the satisfaction of their residents.  That is, you need to increase the supply of schools that are performing well.

    Interestingly, you already have many schools (I count six) with 1/3 or more of the student body coming from outside the neighborhood.  I am not sure how much higher you want to push that percentage.  I note that the in-flow for U. City seems to be over 50%.  Wow.

    (*or more inflow than outflow - see U. city)

    School                  Resi      Attend   Not Att Enrol      Perc   Inflow  In/Out

    La Jolla               1060        974         86       1590        92%      616       716%

    Scipps Ranch        2300       1859       441       2238      81%      379       86%

    Serra                       1197        955        242      1763      80%      808      334%

    MIRA MESA            3011      2344      667       2456      78%      112      17%

    Point Loma            1791       1387      404       1897       77%      510      126%

    University City        963         720        243      1763       75%      1043     429%

    Henry                      2183      1588      595        2448       73%     860      145%

    Mission Bay*           536         342        194       1109      64%      767      395%

    Morse                      3218      1629      1589      1825      51%      196      12%

    Madison                 1220        606        614      1165       50%      559      91%

    Kearny Complex    2421      1077      1344      1504      44%      427      32%

    Clairemont             1161       486        675       1071       42%      585      87%

    HOOVER                4422      1774       2648      2036     40%      262      10%

    San Diego High      4662      1678      2984      2428      36%      750      25%

    Crawford                3043      1079      1964      1165      35%      86        4%

    Lincoln                   4730      1384      3346      1530      29%      146      4%

    Brian Edmonston
    Brian Edmonston

    It would be interesting to analyze the demographics of SDUSD over last 20 years including parental income and education.  It would also be interesting to know the percentage of the "out-of-area" students at each high school as well as the demographics of those students.

    In the end, shuffling students around won't do much if your base population is disadvantaged.  And while you can say we need to give the disadvantaged a hand-up, that is easier said than done, particularly when the number of disadvantaged students is overwhelming (which I don't know if it is, but I would like to find out.)

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    Maybe parents would be delighted with their local schools if  new lighted stadiums with artificial turf were built at all the schools in the city including elementary and junior high schools. 

    bcat subscriber

    Oh.. by the way... BayView Terrace closed and re-opened.  SDUSD took a school with low test scores; one that was perennially avoided by many local students (inc. the military families which live adjacent to the school) and revamped the entire program.

    When SDUSD closed the original Barnard ES and sold the property, they close BayView Terrace and re-opened it under a new name.  This re-branding may seem shallow, but it was not.  It enabled the following:

    *  All classified and certified teachers were released back into the labor union pool, enabling the new Barnard to hire a new staff or move its staff from the old campus to the new campus.

    *  It enabled re-tooling the curriculum and centering it around Chinese language immersion; a unique offering that created a new image of the school.  By the way, there were very few Asians in that PB community.

    *  It augmented the IB pattern in the cluster by focusing another school on cultural diversity

    bcat subscriber

    This is a decade long problem at SDUSD.  For the last ten years, more than half the students travel to a school other than one within walking distance.  What does this really mean?

    Does it mean that SDUSD has unique opportunities in various neighborhoods and we should celebrate student / parent choice?  Doesn't seem like the BoE / Superintendent agree since they renamed the CHOICE office to the Neighborhood School's office.

    Does it mean that students / parents are afraid of their neighborhood school?  Does it mean that they are leaving based upon facts?  rumors?  real perception?  misconceptions?

    The reality is that nobody at SDUSD knows for sure.  Few students / parents are ever polled on this subject.  Why?  Maybe it is a costly and painful answer that nobody really needs to know.  If that is the case, perhaps SDUSD needs to be a lot more cautious regarding its investments.  Why did SDUSD invest +$140M in Lincoln HS only to have it at low capacity?  Why did SDUSD invite the closure of Mission Bay HS and consolidation with Pacific Beach MS only to see attendance rise?

    Perhaps what we really know is what we don't know.  Maybe schools should not be closed because we cannot predict demographic trends and student / parent choice.  Maybe it means creating x16 unique campuses with different emphasis in each is really strength in diversity.  Maybe one size fits all (one curriculum fits all) is not a very good strategy.  Perhaps we should celebrate a creative arts school, IB school, business school, science school and encourage families to attend a school that emphasizes their desires for education.

    I'd love to know the answer why all these families feel the desire to drive to school (it certainly adds to congestion that I'd like to avoid), but maybe it doesn't really matter?