Pushing boundaries


By Marsha Sutton

Few issues cause parents more distress than changes in school boundaries. Who can forget the tumult when in 2002 the Del Mar Union School District moved hundreds of families from one attendance area to another? Resentment still lingers, 12 years later.

The San Dieguito Union High School District created its system of boundaries nearly 18 years ago that has worked well over time – until now.

SDUHSD was caught off-guard by the intensity of the protests from parents who noisily made themselves heard at recent board meetings and in a barrage of emails and phone calls to district staff and board members.

But no one can say the district wasn’t responsive. Administrators may not have anticipated the problem, an oversight some may fault them for, but they’ve mopped up a potentially volatile situation quite nicely for this year … and are recognizing that the issue needs attention for years beyond 2014.

San Dieguito Academy is located in Encinitas, just east of I-5, in the northern part of the district. SDA is considered a “school of choice” – meaning any student living within the boundaries of the entire San Dieguito district can choose to attend.

The same “school of choice” principle applies to Canyon Crest Academy, located in the southern portion of the district, in the Pacific Highlands Ranch community east of Carmel Valley.

Both “choice” schools have what’s called a 4x4 schedule which allows students to complete four classes in half a year, so they can take eight classes each year.

The district’s other two high schools – Torrey Pines in the south and La Costa Canyon in the north – utilize a more traditional schedule of six classes a year, the same six classes all year long.

TPHS and LCC are “boundary” schools, meaning that any student living within the school’s established boundary is guaranteed admission to that school. So anyone living in the north will go to LCC and in the south will attend TP – unless they choose and are admitted to one of the two “choice” schools.

When SDA was “re-envisioned” 18 years ago, the goal was to attract more students to the aging school. The 4x4 schedule was established, and a new culture was created in part by minimizing a focus on athletics to appeal to students more interested in the arts.

This worked well, so well in fact that when Canyon Crest opened in 2004, many of the same principles at SDA were replicated.

Fast-forward to today, when so many students want to attend SDA and CCA that demand has exceeded capacity. Lotteries were established, with waitlisted students clamoring to get in.

The district is working to make LCC and Torrey Pines more attractive to students, but the major pull seems to be the 4x4 schedule, which so far will not be offered at either boundary school.

The other attraction is the obvious one: proximity. Many students living within walking distance of SDA were waitlisted this year, inflaming parents – and rightly so.

Families with incoming ninth-graders were not the only ones upset. At a recent community meeting in Cardiff, many speakers were parents of younger children who echoed the same complaints.

Election year

On July 10, SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt published an update on the issue, acknowledging that enrollment and boundary policies should be re-examined but not offering any real hope for waitlisted students this year.

This was not well-received by parents who wanted action this fall. In a letter to the SDUHSD staff and board, Encinitas resident Jonathan Edelbrock wrote that he was concerned about “families who are troubled now” – particularly kids who live near one school but are forced to attend a second-choice school farther away.

Edelbrock said the district’s policy of “choice” for SDA “is an utter failure to our families and our community” and that changes are needed immediately to accommodate children wishing to attend their neighborhood school.

With pressure building for changes for this fall, the district did an about-face.

One day after Schmitt’s letter to the community was published, families with waitlisted students at SDA and CCA were informed that the district would accept all incoming ninth-grade students. This amounted to 65 kids at SDA and 125 at CCA.

“Recent developments with our Proposition AA Master Plan have allowed us to review and slightly revise the long-term capacity of the school,” the district’s message said.

Cynical reactions? If you make enough noise, you get your way. And if you make enough noise in an election year, then you really get your way.

Of course it’s the right thing to do, to admit students to their closest school. So something had to happen.

But how did it happen, when the district seemed so certain just days before that the waitlisted kids would not be offered admittance? And what does it say to the families whose kids were waitlisted at SDA and CCA in prior years who were never admitted?

Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services, said that at Canyon Crest, 701 ninth-graders were admitted before the 125 on the waitlist were notified. Of the 701, Grove said 597 accepted.

Unfazed by the estimated size of the class, Grove said he expected about 80 of the 125 waitlisted students to enroll, yielding a class of approximately 677 to start the year at CCA.

Grove said that prior to the addition of the 65 waitlisted SDA ninth-graders, the district admitted 526 to SDA, of which 478 accepted.

“We anticipate that approximately 40 of the 65 waitlist invitees will actually enroll, yielding a ninth-grade class [at SDA] of approximately 518,” Grove said, noting that the district over-enrolls “because we know there will be attrition.”

Not every SDA parent was overjoyed.

Sheri Perlman’s two children have been on the SDA waitlist for two years now, and were again denied entry to the school closest to their home in Leucadia.

Although pleased for the 65 ninth-graders who were admitted this year, she said her “feathers got a little ruffled” when her request for admittance was again rejected.

“I don’t want to undo anything for those kids,” she said, “but there’s a system that they are supposed to follow.”

Perlman said the board policy on high school selection says nothing about ninth-graders having priority over students in other grade levels. She praised the district’s staff, calling them “hard-working people” but said they should be able to accommodate the other students, especially those on the waitlist longer.

At SDA, according to Grove, there are 46 10th-graders, 35 11th-graders, and 33 12th-graders on the waitlist. At CCA there are 103 10th-graders, 41 11th-graders and 23 12th-graders waitlisted. Huge numbers – 281 in total – not admitted to their first-choice school.

Board directive

In response to the uproar, Grove said the school board asked district staff to see if capacity could be increased at the academies to accommodate the ninth-grade students.

After looking at room utilization at SDA and CCA, “we discovered that we probably could squeeze in some more kids,” he said.

The capacity at SDA is about 1,600, he said, “but we can admit more because of attrition.” Opening enrollment at SDA this fall is about 1,670 – “about 20 over what we generally allow.”

However, a large class one year often means a much smaller class the following year, in order not to exceed total capacity for the school.

“This year the percentage of students that chose an academy went up significantly,” Grove said. “We don’t know whether that’s a one-year blip or whether that’s a trend.”

Grove referred to California Education Code 35160.5 as the relevant law that guides district enrollment policies.

Sponsored by then Calif. Assemblywoman Dede Alpert, this law, Assembly Bill 1114, passed in 1993. It allows intra-district transfers as long as seats are available.

If demand exceeds capacity, then districts must employ an unbiased, random lottery, giving all applicants an equal chance. Exceptions include siblings of current students, threats of bodily harm, and children of district employees. San Dieguito honors the first two exceptions but not the third.

In a conversation with Dede Alpert, she 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. She also stated that she believed it was legal to have academies as San Dieguito has chosen to do.

The district could have all “boundary” schools, all “choice” schools, or a mix which is the current situation.

Much of the immediate energy was generated by parents with ninth-graders on the waitlist at SDA who have now been admitted. But that won’t end the controversy.

“People are still interested in the long-term solution,” Grove said.

“I understand,” he said. “If you live across the street, you want your kid to be able to go to the school they can walk to.”

The task force the district is creating to examine the issue will try to find a balance between proximity to a neighborhood school and the flexibility of having a school of choice.

The goal, Grove said, is “to brainstorm all ideas” and to “figure out how we can maintain the benefits of the choice program while trying to better meet the needs of the community.”

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

“I support neighborhood schools and believe the task force is unnecessary,” said SDUHSD board member John Salazar. He said a change “is so obviously needed.”

He supports giving first priority to those who live nearby. “Then if there is room, open up to everyone else,” he said.

A lovefest

The July 17 school board meeting, originally expected to be jammed with angry parents, was instead a lovefest, with congratulations and gratitude all around for solving the immediate problem.

With staff, board members and parents falling all over themselves to thank each other, it might have been easy to overlook the one unhappy face in the crowd.

When Sheri Perlman addressed the board, she reminded everyone that the 281 students on the upper-grade waitlists are still waiting for their happy ending.

Despite unresolved problems, a debt of gratitude is owed to the organized and vocal community members for stepping up and getting done what was needed years ago – a re-evaluation of outdated enrollment policies.

Any change in school boundary policies will certainly leave some unhappy. But children must be guaranteed access to their neighborhood schools.

Demographics change, student interests change, and neighborhoods change. So it’s time for a change in SDUHSD’s now antiquated system for high school selection, to reflect a new reality.

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