San Dieguito to continue with blend of open enrollment, boundary schools


After a year’s worth of workshops, surveys and passionate debates, San Dieguito Union High School District’s high school enrollment process will not change. The board made that direction to the district staff after a three-hour public meeting at Carmel Valley Middle School on Aug. 31, attended by nearly 200 people.

The board was considering three options: to draw boundaries around all four high schools, to maintain the current mix of boundary and open enrollment schools, or to draw small boundaries around San Dieguito and Canyon Crest to give preference to students who live close to the schools.

As Superintendent Rick Schmitt noted, there is no perfect solution in which everyone will be happy — the goal was to find the option that positively affects the most families.

“I truly do believe in choice,” said board member Joyce Dalessandro. “There’s been no evidence presented this evening, or prior to this, that is compelling enough reason to change the whole system as it stands. This system has been working beautifully, almost flawlessly, since its inception.”

Dalessandro said she has heard many parents express fears that their children would be excluded from the school closest to home, but history has shown that such fears are unfounded. While 62 percent of students picked the academies for the 2015-16 school year, she noted trends do shift.

“I’m dedicated to the best possible outcome for all, and I want to move forward with dedicating our efforts to program enhancements and move away from changing the enrollment model to satisfy the few,” she said.

Trustees had dealt with the issue of school choice as parents themselves. Trustee Amy Herman’s children went to Torrey Pines and CCA to meet their different needs. President Beth Hergesheimer said her son went to La Costa Canyon, but did struggle with not being able to take as many courses as SDHSA students could.

“My direction is to go with option two, which I do not see as ‘no change.’ I see it as an opportunity to move forward on solving a lot of the problems we’ve been working on for a while.”

Throughout the process, Associate Superintendent Michael Grove said that they’ve learned that program equity between all four high schools is crucial, regardless of the enrollment policy.

“If we don’t create a system where the student can feel their choices are equitable, we’re going to continue to have excess demand for certain schools,” Grove said.

Superintendent Rick Schmitt said the district would continue to work on equity and “fine tune” their school programs in “very smart and collaborative ways.”

“We have to create parity so that there’s not a lottery,” trustee Mo Muir said.

The fresh look at the enrollment process was triggered by Cardiff and Encinitas residents last year, after 65 students were initially not accepted into San Dieguito despite living within walking distance of the school. The district was able to find room for all waitlisted freshmen in 2014, including an additional 125 waitlisted students at CCA.

All students were admitted to their school of choice this spring for the 2015 school year.

Cardiff and Encinitas parents like Danica Edelbrock and Sarah Gardner have been circulating petitions, rallying in front of San Dieguito and raising awareness about a school choice system they believe is unfair, in which children can be displaced from attending their neighborhood school.

“The decision to do nothing and make no change would be a decision to sustain an unfair system,” Gardner told the board.

“Make the option primarily for residents who live within the city of Encinitas to attend their local school by default of local residency status,” said Judith Bumann. “I want the right for my kid to go to school around the corner.”

Her daughter will be a fifth-generation SDHSA student.

The crowd had dwindled some by the time the board made its direction to the superintendent, but most of the 21 speakers favored keeping the school-of-choice enrollment process.

“The character of all the schools is different, and that’s a wonderful thing and a strength of the district,” said Carmel Valley resident Cynthia Rajsbaum.

“Choice is paramount in my opinion,” said parent Mark Caton. “It makes for better schools and happier students … Choice creates a sense of pride. Why change something that is so extraordinarily good?”

The district’s open enrollment method began in 1996 after La Costa Canyon was built, with the intent of creating a balance of diversity between San Dieguito and LCC. In 2004, when the district opened Canyon Crest Academy, the district decided to duplicate the success it had in the north.

“I think there’s value in demographic diversity in our schools,” Grove said. “Total capacity is not an issue. It’s about balancing capacity.”

If more students opt to attend a school than it can hold, the district conducts a random lottery. State law doesn’t allow geographic proximity as a priority in a lottery.

Over the past eight years, an average of 99 percent of students have been admitted to their choice school of San Dieguito. At CCA, the average was 94 percent over eight years with 137 students not accepted to their choice school in the 2013-14 school year.

In a survey of 500 eighth-graders, they listed athletics, academics and school culture as their top reasons for choosing La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines. For the academies, the bell schedule was the top reason students opted for the school, followed by school culture and academic reputation.

Art was the last reason students selected TPHS or LCC, and athletics was the last reason students selected SDHSA and CCA.

Parents surveyed said academics and school culture were the top two reasons behind choosing a school. Of the three options the board was considering, 45 percent of parents said they most preferred the mix of boundary and open enrollment method, while 35 percent preferred the small attendance areas around the academies.

When asked what the least desired outcome would be, 54 percent of parents surveyed said drawing boundaries for all schools.

Several CCA parents and teachers spoke of the school’s unique character and what would be “dismantled” if the enrollment method were changed.

CCA teacher Christopher Black said the students’ ability to self-select their school is invaluable, because students truly want to be there — the fact that they attend a school because they picked it resonates with them, not because they live on a particular street.

Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach parents Marti Ritto and Lynne Austin noted that students in their communities don’t have a neighborhood high school. Under the current system, students get the opportunity to select which school will best fit their needs.

“Every child is an individual, and the choices in the schools are extremely important. We don’t have a school we can walk across the street to,” Austin said.

Former San Dieguito board members Linda Friedman and Sue Hartley both spoke against tampering with the “wonderful” system they helped set in place that has become the envy of districts statewide and across the country.

Cardiff parent Destiny Irons questioned the solution of maintaining the status quo when the trends show that more students are selecting academies, and there might not always be room for all to attend their school of choice.

“The problem is not going away,” Irons said.

She said drawing boundaries is hard work, but work the district needs to do to avoid more problems in the future.

Trustee John Salazar said he supported the option of boundaries — around just the academies or around all four schools.

“It makes perfect sense that those that live around that school should have the first option to attend that school,” Salazar said. “I think the current system is broken … It makes logical sense to have small boundaries around the four schools.”