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Education Matters: Boundary decision kicked down the road

At the end of a marathon 10-hour school board meeting, held Feb. 17 and ending at nearly 1 a.m. on Feb. 18, San Dieguito Union High School District trustees put aside earlier contentiousness and came together, more or less, to address the over-crowding at San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas.

Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)

Mark Miller, the district’s deputy superintendent, had previously recommended limiting enrollment for incoming ninth-grade students for this fall to 375, which would almost certainly have required a lottery.

This number, he said, was based on lowering the school’s overall capacity for grades 9-12, now at 2,110, down to 1,850 in two years.

He said it would take three years to get to 1,850 (the limit for the school, according to the district) if the cap were set at 428, and four years if the cap were 450.

The current number of ninth-graders at SDA is 560, Miller said, and the number of graduating seniors is 454.

If trustees want to set a new cap, he said staff would advise the board not to exceed the number of students leaving.

The downside of increasing the ninth-grade class size, he said, was how it would affect current students who signed up for a smaller campus.

He did note, however, that overall district enrollment was declining and that SDUHSD’s eighth-grade classes were “much smaller than we’ve had in the past.”

Also, past trends indicate that 8 to 9 percent of students who select SDA decide to go elsewhere, Miller said.

The deadline for school selection ended Feb. 18. If a lottery for SDA is needed, it would be held Feb. 25. The enrollment deadline is March 21, which is when the district will know how many students actually intend to enroll at SDA.

“At 428, I would anticipate a lottery,” Miller said, but historical attrition rates might mean that some students on the waitlist might get in.

The board briefly considered a cap of 450 but settled on 428 for this fall, with a handful of seats available for grades 10-12.

Miller said that 428 “is a compromise that would allow us to ultimately shrink the school down in the next three years.”

The motion passed 4-1, with board president Mo Muir opposed.

“This is the worst year our kids have ever had, and every child deserves to go to the school of their choice,” she said, explaining her vote.

A lottery for this fall, after all that, is possible, with no priority for neighborhood students.

What next?

This issue will not vanish until the district sets firm attendance boundaries around SDA that prioritize neighborhood students.

The failure of the district to resolve the SDA waitlist/lottery issue is a black mark on the district – made worse because it could have, and should have, been addressed years ago.

Except for Muir, no board member or anyone currently in top posts at the district was in a leadership position when this issue exploded in 2014.

Last week’s column (see it online at delmartimes.net, columns catgeory) provided some history on the issue.

A review of a public school board meeting held in 2015 provides more background.

At that meeting, dozens of Encinitas parents pleaded with the board not to displace students from their neighborhood school.

But the board instead chose to heed the advice of former school board members Linda Friedman, Sue Hartley and Dee Rich, all of whom attended to defend the existing policy.

Former and now deceased SDUHSD trustee Joyce Dalessandro said she saw “no evidence presented that’s a compelling enough reason to change the current system” which she said has been “working almost flawlessly since its inception.”

Trustees Beth Hergesheimer and Amy Herman, both no longer serving, also supported no change, with Herman saying it has worked well over the years.

John Salazar, who served on the school board from 2010 to 2018, disagreed, saying, “It makes logical sense to create small boundaries around SDA to give priority to those who live nearby. The current system is broken.”

Mo Muir, who was on the board at that time, said her position was: “no lottery.”

Taking direction from the board, then superintendent Rick Schmitt said, “We will carry on as we have for the past 19 years” – with some fine-tuning along the way, he added.

So much for fine-tuning.

Marketing LCC

To address the problem, the district sought to promote La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad as an alternative to draw students away from SDA in Encinitas.

Thus, an International Baccalaureate program at LCC was established in the fall of 2018 and was considered one of the most exciting developments in years for the district.

Founded in 1968 in Switzerland, International Baccalaureate [www.ibo.org] is recognized internationally as an exceptional inquiry-based program.

In addition to standard academic material, IB students learn critical thinking, global awareness, community service, intercultural understanding and responsible citizenry.

Through experiential, discovery-based learning, IB students are educated with an international perspective.

It’s not my job to promote the district’s IB program – seems to me that’s the district’s job. But it relates to this story because it was hoped that the IB program would lure potential SDA students to choose LCC.

Bryan Marcus was LCC principal at the time and is now SDUHSD’s Associate Superintendent of Educational Services. So he knows better than many about the history of IB at LCC.

In a column I wrote in 2017 about LCC’s IB program [https://www.delmartimes.net/our-columns/sd-cm-nc-education-matters-20170202-story.html], Marcus said one catalyst for pursuing the IB program was to increase interest and enrollment at LCC.

Marcus said at the time that he was aware of the misperception that LCC is a “jock school” with a focus on sports and said he was working to inform the community that LCC is strong in academics and the arts, as well as athletics.

So what happened to all that promotion of the IB program at LCC? Pretty much nothing.

“I attended the LCC tour last week and was told they had an IB program,” wrote parent Patrice Isenhower recently to the board. “I had never heard that before. There should be focus on encouraging families that want the IB experience to attend LCC.”

Common sense

In a recent email to the board, parent Patrice Isenhower wrote, “Six years ago, I attended all of the meetings regarding the lottery when my older son was in eighth grade. I was part of the community that came up with, in my opinion, some great options to avoid future lotteries.”

“I’m disappointed that none of this was resolved six years ago,” she said. “Please help these kids and allow them to stay close to home, stay with friends, walk to school and attend their neighborhood school.”

“I am not happy at all that the district has failed our families,” trustee Michael Allman replied to her. “We saw this coming a year ago, and due to poor leadership we didn’t fix the problem. Shame on us.”

Danica Edelbrock, parent of an SDA senior, recently wrote to the school board on behalf of incoming SDA students, saying, “Please note the mental harm you may add to an already fragile teen community by displacing them from their neighborhood.

“Priority should be given to those within a certain distance to each school. Please apply common sense and develop a process that solves this problem.”

Trustee Melisse Mossy said in an email that she recognizes why schools have caps on enrollment, given various limitations, but added, “My hope is to rectify this in the very near future so that every student has the assurance they can attend their first choice school.”

Mossy would like the lottery system abandoned in the future. “It can be done!” she said.

“I feel terrible that we can’t take proximity into consideration for the next school year,” Allman said. “Although it may be too late for this coming year, I will work to make this happen for the following school year.”

Muir, who continues to oppose any lottery for SDA, said a long-term strategy was needed and wants a special task force created to develop a solution.

“I am going to push for this to happen,” she said.

When asked for comments on the issue, trustee Katrina Young referred me to her comments made in the public meeting, and trustee Julie Bronstein wrote, “I have no comment at this time.” They both supported raising the cap, as did Allman and Mossy.

District failure

Curious what would happen if the district receives more than 428 requests for SDA from incoming ninth-graders, I asked Miller the following questions:

“If you have 429, 430, 435 who want in, does everybody go into the lottery system? At what point do you impose the lottery? At 10 over? 15 over?”

As of deadline, Miller had not responded.

Attendance boundaries can easily be created around SDA. The district needs to do right by students. Families should not have to stress about this ever again.

This problem is not insurmountable. Surely there are more complicated, pressing issues facing the school district. This should not be one of them.

UPDATE: As of Wednesday evening, Feb. 23, the district has not released the number of incoming ninth-grade students who wish to attend SDA as their first choice -- despite requests for this information. But Supt. Cheryl James-Ward confirmed that a lottery will be necessary.

When asked how many over the 428 maximum would trigger a lottery, the district’s communications spokesperson, Miquel Jacobs, simply reiterated that the cap was 428 -- implying that even if it’s just one student over that number, a lottery would be enacted.
The lottery for SDA will be held Feb. 25 at 1 p.m.

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


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