Education Matters: San Dieguito’s boundary quandary

The decision by the San Dieguito Union High School District last spring to create a task force to study the district’s boundary policies was billed as an effort to be inclusive and give all stakeholders a voice.

But in reality, not only did it cut out of the process many stakeholders, but it also delayed by one full year any changes in outdated policy.

It also fueled a firestorm of protest among parents frustrated by the secretive meetings and outraged over the $350-per-hour price tag for a controversial facilitator.

If the school board had simply made a decision last year, after considering all the demographics and legal constraints, there would be a new policy (or perhaps the same old policy) in place for this fall. Either way, at least we’d know. After all, trustees were elected to make those hard decisions.

But now, because of the delay, nothing will change, if it changes at all, until fall 2016, leaving parents of this year’s incoming ninth-graders stuck with the same antiquated system.

Worse yet, this fall’s admittance levels may be more restrictive than ever before, because last year the district, under political pressure, admitted every student on the waitlist for both San Dieguito Academy and Canyon Crest Academy, overfilling both schools and leaving fewer seats open for this fall’s incoming class.

What a school has space for, and thus requires a lottery for, seems to be a moving target.

Until protests erupted last spring, both academies were classified as full and 190 students were waitlisted. But when the noise got so loud, room was magically made for all 190 waitlisted kids — 65 at SDA and 125 at CCA.

Apparently, a school is full — and then suddenly, based on some obscure administrative calculations, it’s not.

After last year’s over-enrollment, it’s doubtful we’ll see the same sort of magic at the academies this fall.

Outdated policy

The boundary problem came about because, last spring, incoming ninth-grade students choosing San Dieguito Academy were placed in a lottery, per district policy, and many living within walking distance were not chosen.

A policy on boundaries that is 18 years old has outlived its usefulness, clearly.

There are two hard-boundary schools — kids who live in the northern part of the district are assigned to La Costa Canyon High School, and kids in the south go to Torrey Pines High School.

The two so-called academies — San Dieguito in the north and Canyon Crest in the south — are open-boundary schools, meaning any student in the entire district can apply to go there.

Because demand has exceeded supply at both academies, lotteries are in place.

Last spring, there was a near-riot, from parents not just of incoming ninth-graders but those with younger kids who could predict the future.

Kids who can’t attend their neighborhood schools — schools they can walk to, for heaven’s sake — is unacceptable.

Thus, the study group, which is closed to the public, was created.

The goals of the study group, according to the district, are to examine the long-term demographic projections that could influence high school enrollment, review current district practices and relevant state law, analyze each potential option, identify benefits and drawbacks of each option, share the information with the community, and report findings to the school board.

The group is composed of 43 individuals, all of whom had to submit an application for acceptance, which was reviewed by district staff. There were many more applicants than the number selected.

Eight are students (two from each of the four comprehensive high schools), 15 are parents, and 20 are district employees.

Of the 20 district employees, 13 are teachers, three are counselors, two are principals (Tim Hornig of San Dieguito Academy and David Jaffe of Torrey Pines High), and two are district administrators.

Teachers are on the committee “primarily because they lend some insight into schools (that’s) different than parents have,” said Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent for educational services, who serves on the committee.

Another reason, he said, is that any change “would impact them and has the potential to change the core curriculum and the way they teach.”

Also, Grove said, faculty is involved when any major policy change is being considered. “That’s how we operate,” he said. “We include our teachers in all big decisions.”

Teachers in the study group are as much all over the map as parents are, Grove said. The ones at Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon “have some real interest in some change,” while those at the two academies “like the choice aspect.”

Grove said teachers are not over-represented in the group because only about half of them come to the daytime meetings, since they need to be in the classroom. “So we overloaded the number of teachers to account for all the absences,” he said.

But Grove previously claimed that one reason members of the public should not be able to observe the closed meetings is that, if they can pop in and out, they would not have the benefit of the background provided at early meetings.

So why are teachers given a pass when the district knew they wouldn’t be attending all the meetings?

Is there not a commitment to show up if one submits an application? How are teachers to make informed recommendations if they have missed some of the background meetings?

Neighborhood schools

The district plans to have its fourth meeting of the study group on Feb. 17, after which Grove said the district will hold a number of town hall meetings, although there is no set schedule yet — no dates, locations, or even the number of meetings.

“We will see how it goes before setting a schedule,” he said. If there is demand, more will be scheduled. If certain areas of the community seem more interested, more meetings will take place there.

After all the town hall meetings, members will regroup to finalize recommendations to present to the school board, which Grove hopes to do by June.

Working backwards, incoming ninth-grade students need to make their choices by next February for fall 2016. So boundaries need to be finalized by February 2016.

And there’s a lot of work to change policy, Grove said, which means backing up at least six months, which brings us to this August or September for a final decision from the school board.

Any policy change for 2016 would affect current seventh-graders and those in lower grades.

According to reports from the last three meetings, brainstorming discussions have resulted in five possible options, not all of which, Grove said, are viable:

  1. Status quo.
  2. Draw traditional boundaries around all four high schools.
  3. Eliminate all boundaries and enroll students based on choice and a lottery if necessary.
  4. Maintain existing boundaries for LCC and TP, but allow for geographic priority for the two academies.
  5. Eliminate all existing boundaries for all four high schools and guarantee enrollment for students within a specified radius of each school, opening enrollment up to other students outside that radius if seats are available.

Options 4 and 5 are hybrid models that allow students within walking distance to attend their neighborhood schools.

Grove said the purpose of the meeting on Feb. 17 will be to narrow down the five options to three. He said having no boundaries for any of the four high schools was not a viable option, and having four hard boundaries is problematic because it eliminates choices and forces students within the set radius to accept the programming distinctions of their neighborhood school, whether they want that or not.

Because CCA and SDA have adopted the 4x4 schedule, and TP and LCC have not, this matters to many students.

Grove said the best options are to keep the system as is, adopt four distinct boundaries, or a hybrid approach that allows for geographic proximity around the two academies.

This last option would mean that students living near SDA or CCA will be pleased with the policy, but students living just across the street from the geographic radius might not be.

The group recognizes that any option will leave some families unhappy, Grove said.

Boundary changes are one of the most contentious topics any school district confronts. But a policy that allows kids to attend their neighborhood school is about fairness and common sense. It’s just that simple.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.
59°