By Karen Billing
Parents Jennifer Hewitson and Britta Brewer graduated from San Dieguito when it was still just a high school, not an Academy. They had always hoped their children would follow in their footsteps and attend their neighborhood high school, too.
But now, because of San Dieguito Union School District’s high school selection and lottery process, there is a chance that they won’t get that opportunity.
Sixty-five students did not get into their school of choice — San Dieguito Academy — this year. Many of them live within walking or biking distance of the school. So a large group of Cardiff and Encinitas residents have banded together to ask the district to consider changing the selection system and making San Dieguito a boundary school.
Parents filled the room at the June 5 school board meeting and inundated the district with phone calls and letters to prompt an agendized discussion at the Thursday, June 19, meeting and a community meeting on Monday, June 16.
About 80 parents attended Monday’s June 16 meeting at Cardiff Elementary School.
“Thank you for advocating for your kids and voicing your opinion,” Superintendent Rick Schmitt told the room, which was full of parents and SDUHSD staff members. “We are in the business of listening to moms and dads and students.”
The board’s discussion at the June 19 meeting will address concerns and comments and how the district should move forward. A task force could be formed to look at the issue.
Schmitt said the district really has three options: to remain a mix of schools of choice and boundary schools; to make all high schools boundary schools; or to make all schools schools of choice.
Parental concerns about nonboundary schools have risen, as no students were accepted from the wait lists at San Dieguito or Canyon Crest Academies this year. Neither school has any room left.
“We have seen an increase in the numbers of students that are choosing the academies,” said Michael Grove, the district’s associate superintendent of educational services. He noted there was a big jump this year, with almost 60 percent of students choosing academies.
“The increase in the size of the schools is because of the increase in demand.”
Jennifer Lessley is a parent of one of the 65 students for whom there was no room. She lives seven houses away from the school. She walks her kids to Ocean Knolls School every day, but now her oldest will have to be at the bus stop at 6:30 a.m. to be bused to La Costa Canyon, a transportation cost she must incur. As a single parent, she’s not sure how after-school activities like sports will work without transportation.
“We appreciate having a choice,” Lessley said, “but effectively, my daughter is being displaced and her choice has been removed.”
Grove gave a history about how the high school selection process and nonboundary schools came to be.
When building La Costa Canyon High School in 1995, the district took a look at the boundaries for the new school and saw it would be creating a population at LCC that would be 95 percent Caucasian; San Dieguito would be 33 percent Latino.
To create a balance of diversity between the schools, they came up with the idea of making San Dieguito an academy — “a school of choice.”
When San Dieguito opened as an academy in 1996, it had 976 students. This fall, there will be 1,600 students.
In 2004, when the district was looking to open Canyon Crest Academy, Torrey Pines High School had 3,600 students. The district had the same discussion about boundaries and decided to duplicate the success of SDA as a choice school, rather than redraw boundaries.
CCA had 369 students when it opened one grade in 2004. That number reached 1,200 in 2008 with a full campus, and now it is the district’s second-biggest high school, with 1,955 students coming in the fall.
Grove said the district’s goal is to get all ninth-grade students into their choice schools. But with the school selection lottery process, SDUHSD is simply following the law.
The Open Enrollment Act of 1993 was enacted because at the time, students who wanted to attend another school did not have that legal right. The law states that districts must allow transfers as long as there is space and, if demand exceeds capacity, the district must conduct an unbiased lottery.
The law allows only three exceptions to the random lottery: if a student faces a threat of bodily harm at one school; if a student is the child of an employee; or if a sibling already attends the school. SDUHSD uses only the sibling exception.
The law does not allow geographic proximity to be a priority.
Grove said capacity at SDA is realistically about 1,600 and they typically accept 25 to 50 more students than that to allow for attrition.
Since 2006, he said, 98 percent of high school students have enrolled in their school of choice. For that 2 percent not admitted, however, “it creates a great deal of anxiety,” he said.
Grove said 60 percent of enrollment at SDA comes from Encinitas, 23.2 percent from La Costa, 12 percent from Cardiff, 2.3 percent from Solana Beach, and less than 1 percent from Rancho Santa Fe and Del Mar.
One parent pointed out that if there were boundaries, taking away the kids from the south would represent the 60 local children who did not get into SDA this year.
The district has increased capacity at both campuses to accommodate increased demand, and the goal is to continue to increase the cap on enrollment with scheduling and facility improvements provided by Prop AA funding.
In discussions with the principal at San Dieguito, Grove said the top reason why students choose the academy is the four-by-four schedule and the flexibility it offers.
“La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines High School are in discussions about a change in the bell schedule in the 2015-16 year to draw more students to those schools and decrease demand at the academies,” Grove said.
LCC has plenty of capacity. At one time it had 2,700 students; now it has 1,950. Grove said the goal should be creating programs that will attract students to the boundary schools and restore balance among the four high schools.
Parents argued that the situation is different at SDA and LCC than TPHS and CCA — Torrey Pines is a couple of miles away from CCA, and La Costa and San Dieguito are about six miles apart.
Parents noted that surrounding areas have changed and conditions for transporting children long distances have changed. It’s best for the students, the community and the environment to keep them in their neighborhood school.
Parent Joel Rump said some parents are facing about 150 minutes a week in travel time, a 30-minute round trip every day — versus a five- to 10-minute walk without spending money on fuel.
Parent Nancy Frazier said the ability for kids to walk and bike to school gives them a taste of independence, forges a sense of community and promotes health and wellness.
“It means a lot to us to be at the neighborhood school and not to be all over town and spend $700 on bus rides,” said Hewitson, who lives four blocks from San Dieguito.
Britta Brewer said the importance of having her children at a school closer to home came into sharper focus after the wildfires last month.
“Over the last 20 years I’ve watched the district accommodate growing communities with La Costa, Del Mar and Solana Beach. We’re left behind, in a sense,” Brewer said. “Old Encinitas and Cardiff are not allowed the choice to attend their local public school. It’s time to give us the same treatment as other communities. We want the choice to keep our kids near us.”
Several parents proposed that perhaps the problem was with the law and that they should lobby to change it to include geographic proximity as a priority.
“The legislation was more about if you didn’t want to go to your neighborhood school,” said parent Danica Edelbrock. “But I want my kids to be able to attend a school within walking distance.”
Some parents spoke in favor of high school selection. Paul Abel said his children have been different from each other since day one, and he likes that they are able to choose where they would fit best.
“I drive my kids way too much, but I am willing to drive for my kids,” Abel said. “I appreciate the choice we have, and it encourages schools to be unique and have their own unique culture.”
He wondered whether the time and resources spent to redraw boundaries would truly benefit students.
Grove said varying factors must be considered with all the district’s options for solutions. For example, the ethnic/racial/socioeconomic diversity of the campuses, Mello-Roos funding, redrawing middle school boundaries, and where the high school boundaries would be. There are also program implications — for example, if the district isn’t offering different schools to students, would it have to offer football at San Dieguito?
“The unique culture of SDA may be lost over time if it is a boundary school,” said Grove, who used to be principal at the school.
He said these are discussions that they need to have as a community, a big discussion with all 12,300 families in the district. He believes a task force will help solicit feedback and generate a community dialogue.
“In the meantime we continue to find as many ways as we can to get students into their school of first choice,” Grove said.
The parents said all they are asking for is fairness.
“We understand change will be difficult and long, but we know it will benefit all of the district, not most of the district,” Brewer said.