It’s too hard to get into a quality public school in San Diego County.

I think that I am pretty connected to the education system – I was a teacher in San Diego Unified, I was a librarian with San Diego Public Library for a decade and now I am a youth development program coordinator with the city of San Diego. But I have been left feeling clueless after trying to find a good school for my daughter, who’s entering kindergarten this year.

Commentary - in-story logoNavigating the confusing landscape of API scores – a system that measured academic performance at schools but was halted in 2013 – plus archaic school websites and the lack of any centralized way to research schools is enough to drive anyone crazy.

Until April of this year, we lived in La Mesa and our neighborhood school was decent, with an API score of 853. Nevertheless, we were hoping for acceptance at the Language Academy for the Spanish immersion program. Our backup plan was to apply for an intra-district transfer to two other schools in the La Mesa-Spring Valley district that with API scores of 899 and 916. We were also considering Urban Discovery Academy, because I work downtown. I applied very early to Urban Discovery Academy and Language Academy.

In March, we bought our own house in El Cajon and immediately discovered a school two blocks from us called EJE Academy. It is a charter school with a Spanish immersion program and an API of 846. We were able to apply before the deadline. I also researched the neighborhood public school, Chase Avenue, and was shocked to see that the school was under a state-mandated improvement order, with a low API score of 753. I applied for an intra-district transfer to Fuerte and Avocado elementary schools. But we missed the deadline.

I soon started to receive information back from the schools where we had applied. My daughter was No. 40-something at Urban Discovery Academy. She was No. 20-something at EJE Academy. She was accepted to the Language Academy French program. I declined the French program but was assured that my daughter was still on the waiting list for the Spanish program. However, the school directed me to the district to find out her number on the waiting list. When I finally got the right person, they told me that she was not on the waiting list at all, and that as an out-of-district student, my daughter would only receive one offer, and we had already declined it. I was shocked. That information was not conveyed anywhere. When I communicated this to the district, they were sympathetic, but could only offer placements at schools with openings.

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

Our hope lay with the requests with the La Mesa Spring Valley and Cajon Valley School districts. Unfortunately, La Mesa replied with a no: there were no kindergarten openings at the two schools I listed. There was no waitlist option. Then we heard back from Cajon Valley – she was 20-something on the Fuerte Elementary waiting list and No. 9 at Avocado Elementary. The No. 9 at Avocado was heartening, until I called the district. They told me that it was unlikely there would be nine openings. I was literally left with no options, other than to send my child to the local school that was struggling.

Then I heard about Thrive Public Schools, a charter school in City Heights, on VOSD’s “Good Schools for All” podcast. I applied immediately and got on the waiting list. Then Thrive sent out a survey asking if it opened up new classes, how likely would we be to attend. I replied that we would definitely attend. Thrive was able to expand, and we were accepted.

I am so relieved, but also so horrified by how close we came to disaster.

While Thrive was not our first choice because of the distance from our house, it seems like a great school and I am so grateful to have learned about it. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had been a less involved parent.

It’s too difficult to get into a good school in San Diego. I don’t know if the problem lies with population growth, transitional kindergarten, lack of school accountability or simply a lack of planning, but something needs to be done at the state level to ensure equal access to quality education in San Diego.

Leslie McNabb is a mother who lives in El Cajon. McNabb’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Education, Opinion

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    G.Fandango subscriber

    This is going to become so much more difficult in San Diego Unified now that the district has shortened the School Choice application window from November 1 to February 15 to October 3 through November 14th for the 2017-18 school year.

    Leslie McNabb
    Leslie McNabb

    Update: We received a call last week that our daughter was accepted to EJE Academy!  Since that was our first choice, we started today.  I appreciate VOSD for publishing my opinion piece, as I am sure that is why we received that phone call.

    Spork Fighter
    Spork Fighter

    Leslie, you looked at one measure of school quality, the API score. You didn't visit a school. You didn't talk to friends or neighbors. You sent a couple of emails during summer when many school personnel were off, and were upset you didn't get a timely reply.

    It seems your only criterion of school quality is more closely correlated with local real estate prices rather than actual school quality, and then you publicly berate people you don't know because you didn't bother to call or drive by a few schools you were interested in sending your daughter to because you "didn't have time".


    Leslie McNabb
    Leslie McNabb

    @Spork Fighter  You might have confused my article with some of the comments here.  I looked at more than API, and I visited all of the schools but Chase (they were closed when we were making that final decision).  Our top choice (EJE) has the same demographics as Chase, and is in the same neighborhood.

    espanolmatt subscriber

    Why would enrolling your child at your local school have "been a disaster?" Did you even bother to tour the school and go look into classrooms? For having been a teacher, solely relying on an API as the one metric for judging a school is myopic. Being under program improvement is meaningless. Any teacher knows this. A school could have a high score, but because they didn't improve their test scores enough, be put on program improvement. I write this as a current classroom teacher myself. I also find it bizarre that you feel entitled to enter any school in a neighboring district or outside your boundaries. This editorial reads more like a long-winded whine than an informed opinion piece.

    Leslie McNabb
    Leslie McNabb

    @espanolmatt  If I read this article as a non-parent, I might have found it whiney, but you are not in my shoes.  If it was my son I was thinking of, I probably wouldn't be worrying about schools at all, but my daughter is different.  I looked at more than API, and I did tour all the schools but Chase (they were closed).  Our top choice school (EJE) is in the same neighborhood with the same demographics as Chase, yet their results are much better, and they have huge waiting lists because the parents know that. 

    Jeremy Ogul
    Jeremy Ogul subscribermember

    Would it really have been a "disaster" if your child had to attend Chase Elementary for kindergarten? 

    Leslie McNabb
    Leslie McNabb

    @Jeremy Ogul  maybe not, but I had a hard time finding out anything about the school, (or any El Cajon schools for that matter) based on their web presence.

    If I had the time to tour every school, observe in the classrooms, meet with the Principals, I probably would have a different opinion, but unfortunately I work full time and we had just moved to El Cajon.  The point is that there should be a better system in place for parents to evaluate schools fairly.

    David Miyashiro
    David Miyashiro

    @Leslie McNabb @Jeremy Ogul

    Dear Leslie,  

    First of all... My apologies for the inconvenience and difficulty you've had to overcome to get your children enrolled in school.  I just left you a voicemail.  We do have a waiting list for Fuerte (based on a lottery), but I do have a couple Kindergarten spots in Rios CS, America's first Computer Science Magnet Schools , Bostonia Language Academy, America's First Dual Language Immersion Computer Science Magnet School , Flying Hills Fine Arts Magnet School and a couple others.  Would be happy to arrange school tours for you and get your kids enrolled in a program that matches your interests in your home town.  Digital Promise and the League of Innovative Schools, a bipartisan congressionally appointed organization, recognized Cajon Valley Union School District as in the top 73 School Districts in the United States.  You can reach my office @ 619-588-3005


    David Miyashiro, Ed.D

    Superintendent, Cajon Valley Union School District

    Leslie McNabb
    Leslie McNabb

    @David Miyashiro  Thanks for the reply and the phone call!  You definitely are doing innovative things.  I wasn't expecting to move to El Cajon, so I didn't have time to research schools as I should have.  I am interested in Flying Hills and I will talk to my husband about it.  I am not sure if we want to switch schools this year, but it is nice to have an option in the city I live in, which I did not feel I had before.  Just a little feedback on Cajon Valley's web presence- your videos are excellent (I had not viewed any before) but the website is really hard to navigate.  For example, many of the links are not working, such as class pages and teacher profiles, and I was unable to find out about before and after school care, minimum days, the PTA, any clubs or after school activities...  You know, the things that can't be measured in an API score...

    David Miyashiro
    David Miyashiro

    @Leslie McNabb

    Sure thing.  Flying Hills is quickly filling in Kindergarten.  Principal Lyche would be happy to meet you.  Give us a call 619-588-3005.

    francesca subscriber

    I've heard that there is a "quality school in every neighborhood"...but maybe that's just in San Diego Unified.

    Charter schools...Where all of the "Good Teachers" go, to be paid less, work longer hours and eventually get fired.

    Or are they the teachers who couldn't get a job in a public school?

    Dave Gatzke
    Dave Gatzke subscriber

    @francesca Thank you for demonstrating exactly the attitude that lead me to strongly favor a charter school for my child. In my experience growing up in the California public school system, I encountered a lot of passionate teachers who made an invaluable contribution to my social, emotional, and intellectual development. Trust me, they were not there for pay or job security.

    I also encountered a lot of teachers who met the minimum requirements of their contract, and were exactly there for the job security. They wasted my time.

    I believe strongly in an environment where a principal can select her or his staff, and recruit and inspire those teachers who are passionate about learning to do their best. 

    In my experience, Charter School teachers are those who want innovation, challenge, and the opportunity to make a difference from day one. Many of them don't want a job in the public schools' rigid environment that favors seniority over capability.

    All teachers are not paid enough for what they do. We need to shift our priorities for education as a society. But, in the interim, I'm placing my bet on those who are passionately choosing the profession -- not the ones seeking the position where they won't eventually get fired.

    And if you believe that there is a quality school in every SDUSD neighborhood, well then that's a problem too.

    francesca subscriber

    @Dave Gatzke


    I, too, am pleased that you are sending your child to a charter.

    My comment about a "Quality School in Every Neighborhood" was a joke, paraphrasing the mantra that Cindy Marten repeats like the Rain Man.

    David Thatcher
    David Thatcher

    We went through the same thing. Waiting list at Fuerte and UDA. But yeah, looking only at API is unfortunate. If you insist on looking at a single metric alone, then the free/reduced lunch % is a much better one to look at. But looking at metrics with schools never tells the whole story.

    The promise of charter schools is completely broken by the fact that most of the good ones will waitlist you.

    There's always, homeschooling, and private school! You can also move into the boundaries of the public school you want. But all those options cost big $$$ either in real estate or giving up working to stay home and educate the child.

    We ended up getting a intra-district transfer in our district. How did we choose the school? We emailed the principals of the four better schools in our district and only ONE replied. That floored me, not getting replies from 3 out of 4 principals. What does that say about what will happen when we need to communicate throughout the school year? Obviously, we applied for an intra-district transfer to the one school that replied to us, and it's been pretty good so far. Even though they are technically in "program improvement" status, I couldn't have hoped for a better outcome.

    After a tremendous amount of personal research and thought I've come to the conclusion that parent engagement at the school is the single biggest predictor of success. This is part of looking for schools with low FRL%, really poor neighborhoods have parents that can't afford to do anything but drop the kid off and pick them up, if that. See if the principal will respond to your email (does the school expect and welcome parent issues and questions)? See if the school has a large, active PTO/PTA? Do they have lots of parent volunteers (this is a big one)? These are the questions that people really need to ask. And, coincidentally, the school we chose ticks all these marks.

    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    While it his understandable for parents to shop for quality schools, this editorial does little to define what constitutes an excellent school. There are repeated references to API test scores that are out of date and that seems to be the principal method of the author determining quality. The public school marketplace is not Educational quality can't be reduced reliably to a quantifiable number.

    Leslie McNabb
    Leslie McNabb

    @Richard del Rio  Thanks for the feedback.  I should have mentioned that I did look at other aspects, not just API.  Like @David Thatcher mentions, parent involvement and school communication are key.  Thrive has both, which we are very happy about!

    David Meyer
    David Meyer subscriber

    @Leslie McNabb @Richard del Rio @David Thatcher It's sad, but seems to be true, that public school systems can't deliver a "quality school in every neighborhood", but only in those where parents volunteer and there is a large, active PTO/PTA, neither of which the District can control.  And like it or not, there is a strong correlation between these features and higher API scores.  I hope that the state will move quickly to produce an updated version of API scores now that we're a couple of years into the use of the Smarter Balanced tests: 

    David V
    David V subscriber

    What makes a good school school is not always quantifiable. What makes a good sandwhich? What makes a good car?

    The school districts are generally not going to publish anything bad

    about their school. If schools and school districts were more open to choice in enrollment then there would be websites that carried that information.