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Education Matters: San Dieguito Academy suffers again from too much interest

The inability – or refusal – of the San Dieguito Union High School District to allow students residing near San Dieguito Academy to attend their neighborhood high school has failed families.

Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)

It’s been nearly eight years since this problem exploded in 2014 when it was announced by the district that a lottery would be held for incoming ninth-graders to attend SDA, a policy that gave no priority for proximity to the school.

It’s maddening that in all those years this intuitively simple problem has not been resolved and instead the proverbial can has been kicked down the road.

To reduce overall enrollment at SDA, Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller last week said only 375 ninth-graders could be admitted to SDA this fall. Currently, capacity is at 2,110, and he claims the maximum is 1,850. These numbers, however, do seem to float around a bit.

Miller said a lottery would be held if more than 375 students choose SDA, with no priority given to students living within walking or biking distance.

We’ve been here before.

For background, SDUHSD has two boundary high schools – Torrey Pines in the south and La Costa Canyon in the north. The district is generally divided in half for those two attendance areas.

The two “academies” – San Dieguito in Encinitas and Canyon Crest located in the eastern side of Carmel Valley – are considered “schools of choice,” and any student living within the boundaries of the entire San Dieguito district can choose to attend.

This is where the problem lies.

The popularity of SDA has increased over the years, creating the crisis that happened in 2014 – and continues today.

In a July 2014 column, I reported that many incoming ninth-grade students living within walking distance of SDA were waitlisted – inflaming parents, and rightly so.

This open boundary policy for the two academies, established more than two decades ago, has clearly long outlived its usefulness.

Trustees have been discussing this issue for the past several weeks after Miller brought his flawed proposal to the board. But it’s unlikely that changes can be made for this fall, given legal ramifications.

“The process has started which raises concerns,” said attorney Jeffrey Wade of the Artiano Shinoff law firm, at a recent board meeting.

Several requests to Wade for clarification went unanswered.

Background

After the 2014 debacle, the district decided to create a task force to study the issue.

But the idea of a task force was not universally favored.

“I support neighborhood schools and believe the task force is unnecessary,” said John Salazar, SDUHSD board member at the time. He said a change “is so obviously needed” and first priority should be given to those who live nearby.

Nevertheless, a study group was created, which offered five options:

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 boundaries for all four high schools and guarantee enrollment for students within a specified radius of each school, opening enrollment to students outside that radius if seats are available.

Options 4 and 5 would allow students to attend their neighborhood schools.

The solution – create boundaries around the two academies – seems so obvious that it’s mind-boggling that the district never took action and finds itself in this same position again, so many years later.

School choice law

California Education Code 35160.5 is the relevant law that guides district enrollment policies, and the legal opinion is that the law doesn’t allow geographic proximity as a priority in a lottery.

But remove the words “in a lottery” and geographic proximity would apply to schools with clear boundaries.

Sponsored by then Calif. Assemblywoman Dede Alpert, this law, Assembly Bill 1114, passed in 1993. It allowed intra-district transfers as long as seats were available. If demand exceeded capacity, then districts had to employ an unbiased, random lottery, giving all applicants an equal chance, with some minor exceptions.

In a 2015 conversation, Alpert said the law was never designed to prohibit children from attending their neighborhood school. She said all schools in San Dieguito could be boundary schools, but then under the law each school would be available to any student throughout the district for any remaining open seats.

Contacted today about the bill, Alpert, now long retired, said, “It was never envisioned that an entire district would declare itself an attendance area so that a lottery would be held for all the spots at a school site.”

San Dieguito, she said, could have an attendance area around each school – and then kids could choice in from outside the attendance area if space allows.

Her school choice law though was written 30 years ago, she cautioned, and may have been amended since the original legislation.

Hand-wringing

For the fall of 2022, incoming SDUHSD high school students have until Feb. 18 to make their requests. If a lottery is needed, it will be held Feb. 25.

“I’m very disappointed that we might have to turn away students who live near the school,” said trustee Michael Allman. “I don’t think that is right.”

“The board decided that there is not enough time to consider making San Dieguito Academy a ‘boundary school’ for the upcoming school year,” he said in an email exchange. “That means we can’t take proximity into consideration for enrollment.”

At the Feb. 7 board meeting, trustee Julie Bronstein, citing concern for student health and wellness, said, “I don’t know that it’s a silver bullet to keep on over-crowding San Dieguito Academy.”

But trustees Mo Muir and Melisse Mossy seemed to push back on this and questioned how not being allowed to attend a neighborhood school and being separated from friends might also, and perhaps more critically, impact student mental health.

“The previous two years of the pandemic have placed tremendous stress on our kids’ mental well-being, and we don’t need to add to their fears or social concerns unnecessarily,” Muir said in an email.

“If students feel that SDA is the best choice for their educational and emotional success, then we need to support that.”

Muir said the district needs a short and long strategy to deal effectively with the lottery issue.

“The short term allows our kids to have their school of choice like we did last year,” she said.

The issue is on the agenda, again, for this Thursday, Feb. 17. Expect lots of hand-wringing and expressions of frustration.

Next week’s column will discuss more on this topic.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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