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Memorial Prep Rebuild Gets a Vision and a Price Tag: $100 Million

The decades-long effort to address the school’s issues continues: In addition to a middle school, the district also plans to create a new high school on the same campus. The money for the renovations will come from Props. S and Z.

It’s happening. The district will build and revamp Memorial Prep, a long-struggling middle school in Logan Heights. Officials plan to spend at least $100 million on the effort.

In addition to a middle school, the district also plans to create a new high school on the same campus. The money for the renovations will come from Props. S and Z, two voter-approved school construction bonds passed in 2008 and 2012.

Councilman David Alvarez and school board member Richard Barrera announced the plans at a town hall meeting this past weekend at the Logan Heights library.

District officials believe the new school, which they hope will open by fall 2019, will give parents the option of sending their kids to a high-quality middle school without busing them to more affluent neighborhoods. It’s part of a broader, district-wide effort called Vision 2020 that aims to create a quality school in every neighborhood.

The disruptions the construction will bring will have a ripple effect. The campus is currently home to three schools: Memorial Prep, Logan K-8 and a King-Chavez elementary charter school (King-Chavez is a charter school network that has six separate schools).

After construction begins, King-Chavez will have to relocate. Logan K-8 will close – likely for good, Barrera said – and nearby elementary schools will have to absorb the students from Logan K-8 who will be displaced by the closure.

The decision to rebuild Memorial is just the latest in a decades-long effort to address issues at the school.

In 1977, when a judge determined 23 San Diego schools were so racially isolated they deprived black and Latino students’ equal rights to a quality education, Memorial was on the list. In the past 20 years, the school has been restructured and rebranded three times.

First, it went from a traditional neighborhood school to a district-run charter school. When that didn’t work, it became an independent charter. Problems continued, and it was reabsorbed by the district in 2008.

What remains is a school where 95 percent of kids are low-income, Latino students, most of whom are still learning English. It tops the list of neighborhood schools that parents most avoid. When Barrera expressed concern recently about the schools where “the only kids who go are kids whose parents aren’t making a choice to send them elsewhere,” this is exactly the kind of school he was describing.

Barrera and district leaders think a fresh start will change that. Both Memorial and the new high school will have a focus on career-readiness. Career pathways will be established at the high school, which could focus on jobs in health care or clean energy, for example. Students at the adjoining middle school would be prepped for those pathways. The community will have a say in what that focus is.

Many San Diego schools are taking this approach, commonly called Linked Learning. The idea is to give kids the same skills and knowledge base called for by graduation requirements, but tie them into a specific career focus.

At the meeting, district officials gave mixed messages about how definitive the plans for the school are.

Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s chief planning and construction officer, projected a blueprint of what the new campus might look like. The middle school would have 17 classrooms and space for about 500 kids; the middle would have 36 classrooms and space for 1,000.

But Dulgeroff said he was hesitant to give additional specifics. The plan was still very conceptual, he said. A lot of conversation and community engagement will happen before plans are set.

Julie Martel, who also works with the facilities and planning department and helps drive the district’s Vision 2020 plan, said the meeting was just a preliminary conversation. “I know from experience that when things start happening behind the scenes, that’s when people get upset,” she said.

But Barrera made things sound pretty concrete: “There are some things we know are going to happen,” he said: Memorial will be rebuilt, a new high school will exist on the campus and the schools will have a career-pathway focus.

In other words, it’s not merely conceptual. There’s an actual plan here. And that’s exactly what chafed leaders from King-Chavez, the charter school that will have to find a new home once construction begins.

Kevin Bradshaw, a King-Chavez principal, took exception to the idea that Logan Heights needs a new school to serve students. “We’re already here, and we have been serving neighborhood kids,” Bradshaw said.

“The rhetoric being shared today is different than what’s been shared with us,” said King-Chavez CEO Tim Wolf. “They say they include everybody in this conversation, yet they notified us just days before this meeting.”

Wolf said he hasn’t yet had discussions with district officials about where they might relocate. But in a follow-up conversation, Barrera was certain it would not be on the same campus.

“I just don’t think it’s possible, when a new school is built, that a charter school can exist on the same property,” Barrera said. Where the King-Chavez school will eventually land will be ironed out in future conversations, he said.

Barrera said he didn’t know the final price tag for the Memorial rebuild, but anticipates it could be “well in excess of $100 million.”

That might sound familiar to anyone who’s followed education in southeastern San Diego. Nearby Lincoln High was rebuilt as a state-of-the-art, $129 million facility in 2007, under rationale very similar to what officials are saying about Memorial.

It struggled to get off the ground. It opened with what was then an innovative idea: four separate, theme-based academies, like the schools-within-a-school model that exist at Kearny and San Diego High.

But those academies at Lincoln are now closed and the concept has once again been retooled. Principals cycled through its doors. Students’ test scores and college-readiness levels are among the lowest of district high schools. Students are racially and economically segregated, just as they have been for the last 40 years.

But Memorial will not be another Lincoln, Barrera assured me. Early on, one of the biggest challenges for Lincoln was that it didn’t have middle schools feeding into it. It struggled to attract enough students, and today remains severely under-enrolled.

This time around, Barrera said the district will make much more robust outreach efforts to neighborhood elementary schools, like Sherman Heights and Rodriguez, and make sure parents are informed and on board with what Memorial will offer. Those middle school students will then naturally feed into the high school.

But what about segregation? I asked Barrera. Doesn’t this simply create a new school for the same kids: those isolated by race, class and language – the ones who Alvarez said are hardest to serve?

“No, no, no. It gives them an option, whereas now they have none. The school district has totally abdicated its responsibility to the Logan Heights community for well over a decade,” Barrera said. “If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, we can’t be satisfied with ‘saving’ a few kids by taking them out of their neighborhood schools and leaving the vast majority behind. This is about bringing opportunity to them.”

UpdateAfter this story was published, Richard Barrera asked to clarify that when he said “the school district has totally abdicated its responsibility to the Logan Heights community for well over a decade,” he was referring to the years before 2008, when San Diego Unified reabsorbed Memorial Prep as a district school.

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