The failure – or denial – of San Diego Union High School counties to allow students living near the San Diego Academy to attend their nearby high school has led to failed families.
It has been almost eight years since the problem erupted in 2014 when the district announced that a lottery would be held for incoming ninth-graders to visit the SDA, a policy that does not prioritize proximity to the school.
What is insane is that over the years, this intuitively simple problem has not been solved, and instead the speech bank has been thrown out.
To cut the overall enrollment in the SDA, Deputy Chief Mark Miller last week said only 375 ninth-graders could be admitted to the SDA this fall. Currently, the capacity is 2110, and the maximum, according to him, is 1850. However, these figures seem to be a little hovering.
Miller said the lottery would be held if more than 375 students choose the SDA, with no priority for students living within minutes of walking or cycling.
We’ve been here before.
For reference, SDUHSD has two frontier high schools – Torrey Pines in the south and La Costa Canyon in the north. The county is usually divided in half for these two areas of attendance.
The two “academies” – San Diego in Encinitas and Canyon Cross, located on the east side of the Carmel Valley – are considered “schools of choice”, and any student living within the entire San Diego area can choose to attend.
That’s where the problem is.
The SDA’s popularity has grown over the years, creating a crisis that happened in 2014 – and continues today.
In a column in July 2014, I reported that many ninth-graders who live within walking distance of the SDA have been placed on a waiting list – inciting parents, and rightly so.
This open border policy for the two academies, created more than two decades ago, is clearly long out of date.
Trustees have been discussing the issue for the past few weeks after Miller submitted his erroneous proposal to the council. But it is unlikely it will be possible to make changes by this fall, given the legal implications.
“The process has begun, which is a cause for concern,” said attorney Jeffrey Wade of law firm Artiano Shinoff at a recent board meeting.
Several inquiries to Wade for clarification went unanswered.
After the 2014 disaster, the district decided to set up a task force to study the issue.
But the idea of a task force was not widespread.
“I support the district schools and believe that the task force is unnecessary,” said John Salazar, a member of the SDUHSD board at the time. He said the changes were “so clearly needed” and priority should be given to those who live nearby.
However, a study group was set up, 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 electives and lotteries if necessary.
4. Retain existing boundaries for LCC and TP, but consider geographical priority for the two academies.
5. Eliminate boundaries for all four high schools and ensure enrollment of students within a certain radius of each school by opening registration for students outside that radius if there are places.
Options 4 and 5 will allow students to attend neighborhood schools.
The decision – to create borders around the two academies – seems so obvious that it is staggering that the district has not taken any action and is again in the same situation, after so many years.
The law of school choice
California Education Code 35160.5 is the relevant law governing county enrollment policy, and the legal view is that the law does not allow geographical proximity as a priority in the lottery.
But remove the words “to the lottery,” and geographical proximity will extend to schools with clear boundaries.
This law, published at the time by the California Dede Alpert Assembly, Bill 1114, was passed in 1993. It allowed transfers within the county if places were available. If demand exceeded capacity, counties had to use an unbiased, random lottery, giving all applicants an equal chance, with some minor exceptions.
In a conversation in 2015, Alpert said the law was never designed to ban children from attending a neighborhood school. She said all schools in San Diego could be frontier schools, but then, by law, each school would be available to any student across the county for any other vacancies.
Contacting today about the bill, Alpert, who has long since retired, said: “It was never expected that the whole district would declare itself a visiting area so that the lottery would be held in all places on the school grounds.”
San Diego, she said, can have a visiting area around each school – and then children can choose from outside the visiting area if space allows.
Her school-selection law was written 30 years ago, she warned, and may have been amended since the original law.
In the fall of 2022, SDUHSD high school students must submit requests by February 18th. If a lottery is needed, it will take place on February 25th.
“I am very disappointed that we may have to dismiss students who live near the school,” said trustee Michael Allman. “I don’t think that’s right.”
“The council has decided that there is not enough time to consider making the San Diego Academy a ‘frontier school’ for the next school year,” he said in an e-mail. “That means we can’t consider proximity for registration.”
At a board meeting on February 7, attorney Julie Branstein, referring to concerns about the health and well-being of students, said, “I don’t know that continuing the crowded San Diego Academy is a silver bullet.”
But trustees Mo Muir and Melis Mossi seemed to have given up on this and wondered how avoiding visiting a nearby school and separating from friends could also, and perhaps more critically, affect students ’mental health.
“The previous two years of the pandemic have put a huge strain on our children’s mental well-being, and we don’t need to unnecessarily add to their fears or social problems,” Muir said in an email.
“If students feel that the 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 tackle the lottery effectively.
“The short term allows our children to choose a school like we did last year,” she said.
The issue is on the agenda again this Thursday, February 17th. Expect a lot of wringing of hands and expressions of disappointment.
The column next week will discuss this topic in more detail.
Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Satan is available at email@example.com.