Once upon a time, you just went to the public school down the street in your neighborhood. That was how Karen Calderon remembered it. But choosing a school for her son was anything but simple.
Her neighbors warned her about iffy scores at their nearby Clairemont school. So she scoped out other schools, gauging their test scores, what time they started, which middle schools they fed into. Calderon toured five schools and wrestled with her choice, changing her mind over and over.
Even now she wonders if she asked the right questions. Calderon snagged a spot at Curie Elementary in University City — her top choice — and drives her six-year-old son there every day.
“I do feel guilty driving past our neighborhood school,” Calderon said. “But all the families on our block go to Curie.”
Choices like hers have changed the face of public schooling. Yellow buses crisscross the school district. Parents schlep kids in cars around town. The kids giggling and hurrying through the halls at Pacific Beach Middle are as likely to be from Barrio Logan or Linda Vista or City Heights as from Pacific Beach.
All those choices don’t always add up to a melting pot.
Giving parents the power to choose another school has helped integrate schools in white neighborhoods, shuttling students of color to the north and the coast. But many schools in largely Latino and African-American areas have been left untouched and some have been segregated more deeply as white families there choose schools somewhere else.
Those tangled results have surprising implications as a new school board makes a push for more neighborhood schooling, the idea that more children should go to their local schools instead of seeking other options across town. Neighborhood schooling seems to fly in the face of integration.
But because school choice has integrated some schools and segregated others, shifting back to more neighborhood schooling could have drastically different effects from one area to the next. It all hinges on what parents like Calderon decide to do as San Diego Unified nudges them back to the neighborhood.
“There was a great groundswell of hope that we could solve our racial problems through integration,” said Ray King, president and CEO of the Urban League of San Diego County. “Now a lot of people are asking, ‘What have we accomplished? Didn’t we just resegregate ourselves all over again?'”
Imagine every child went to their neighborhood school. We wanted to find out what that would look like, so we analyzed school district data showing what schools would look like if students went to their local schools, then compared it to school enrollment today to see how the racial makeup would shift without choice.
Schools that are already heavily white would become whiter. Muirlands Middle in La Jolla, where today roughly half of students are white and a third are Latino, would become almost three-quarters white. Overall, the number of schools that are disproportionately white would surge by more than 50 percent.
There would be fewer schools, though, that are considered disproportionately Latino, African-American or Filipino.
At the Golden Hill K-8 School, 90 percent of the kids frolicking on the playground are Latino, 3 percent are white and 3 percent are African-American, while the neighborhoods it draws from are actually more diverse than the school population seems to suggest. If all the kids in the neighborhood went to Golden Hill, the makeup would be 77 percent Latino, 12 percent white and 5 percent African-American.
More than half of the kids in its attendance zone go somewhere else for school, scattering across the city.
“I’m sure the test scores have something to do with it,” said Kristen Abboud, an education specialist at Golden Hill. “That’s just one window on a school. But it’s the one that gets the most attention.”
In a world without school choice, there would be fewer schools where most kids are of the same race, even with the increase in whiter-than-average schools. Today there are 46 schools where 70 percent of students or more are from the same race; if nobody left their neighborhood there would be 35.
The complicated system of school choice in San Diego integrates some schools and segregates others. Parents can choose a school outside of their neighborhood in several ways: Kids can be bused to a school outside their neighborhood in the name of integration, to get to a magnet school with a special theme, or to get out of schools that fail under No Child Left Behind.
Parents can also just ask for spots in another school, if it has room, and transport their kids there themselves. But while magnets and integration busing made schools more diverse, the last kind of choice actually segregated them, a sweeping study of school choice in San Diego Unified found.
“It’s just encouraging flight towards the most affluent schools that students can find,” said economist Julian Betts, one of the authors of the study. Betts said while any parent can sign up for a magnet and count on a bus to get their kid, not everyone has the time or money to transport their children.
Candelaria Hernandez has been pleased with her neighborhood school, Hoover High off El Cajon Boulevard, where two of her children have already graduated and gone on to San Diego City College. But choosing Hoover was also a practical matter.
“I don’t drive,” Hernandez said, speaking in Spanish. “And other schools were so far.”
Here is how a system once dreamed up to integrate schools ended up falling short. Ordered to desegregate decades ago, San Diego Unified planned to draw African-American and Latino students north to white schools through busing and attract white students south with themed magnet schools.
But magnets in areas with few white children had more trouble luring them across town. Integration went mostly one way. California later stripped race out of the busing equation. Then San Diego Unified added a new program to let parents choose schools outside of their neighborhood — the one that Betts discovered actually segregates schools.
The end result is that many of the schools that were once targeted for desegregation are still segregated.
Kimbrough Elementary in Grant Hill is 96 percent Latino, 99 percent poor and largely English learners — and it would look much the same if the buses rolled to a stop. Principal Flavia Soria worries that her students have so few classmates who speak English fluently to chat with at recess.
Like Kimbrough, Southern California schools that are segregated by race are usually segregated by class and by language too, a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles found. The authors argue that concentrating the poorest children in the same schools only magnifies their disadvantages.
“If you go to a school where everyone is poor, where almost nobody grew up in a family that speaks English at home, the chances that you’ll be ready for college are not good at all,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.
But skeptics argue that simply shifting children around doesn’t get at deeper problems. White students in San Diego still score higher on state tests and are more likely to take advanced classes. Betts found that in most cases, San Diego children did no better if they got into another school than if they stayed at their neighborhood school.
Deepening the frustration is the fact that in San Diego, the burden of riding buses and being the kid from outside the neighborhood has fallen largely to children of color. The only African-American member of the school board, Shelia Jackson, calls it “integrating schools on the backs of students.”
So the school board is turning back to the idea Karen Calderon remembers from her youth.
It wants to strengthen local schools so families aren’t propelled to seek schools elsewhere as often. It believes that communities can better tackle their own problems — even if they end up being more segregated.
“The idea used to be, get poor kids of color into the ‘good schools,'” said school board President Richard Barrera. “Then you look up and say, ‘Wait a second, why are there good schools and bad schools?'”
The school board has asked Superintendent Bill Kowba to craft a five-year plan to attract more students back to their neighborhood schools and offer more themed schools closer to home. Nobody is talking about abolishing choice. But the school board is more reluctant to subsidize it than in the past.
Choice has taken a hit in budget cuts: Families now must pay a fee for magnet or integration busing if their child doesn’t get a free lunch, making it harder for middle class families to bus. And the planned cuts for next year include paring back on bus routes for both integration and magnet schools.
There’s a risk. Schools could keep cutting back on magnets and integration busing, which cost money but integrate schools. And they could continue to let parents choose any school, which is free but segregates. Add that up and segregation could deepen. That threat has barely come up.
Educators at Golden Hill shrug when asked whether it matters that their school is almost entirely Latino. Principal Juan Romo said it would be nice to be more diverse — but it doesn’t worry him. He watched, grinning, as costumed eighth graders acted out the tales of abolitionists and suffragettes, a row of white presidents on the wall behind them. A photo of President Barack Obama was tacked on the end.
Integration has gone to the back burner.
“I don’t think anybody talks about it anymore,” said Fred Lanuza, a Calexico principal who wrote his dissertation on desegregation in San Diego. “Integration is great. But the bottom line is, are the students achieving? Why or why not?”