Grading San Diego High Schools


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Rachel Flanagan takes a hard left and hits the brakes. Students are pouring out of classroom doorways, and Flanagan, principal of Mira Mesa High School, doesn’t want to hit anyone. She zips around campus in a golf cart, stopping and starting repeatedly to chat with students.

“What’s the Mickey Mouse for?” Flanagan asks, pointing to the stuffed toy peeking out of a book bag.

“Oh, for drama class,” says a giggling teenage girl. A bunch of tough-looking boys in white T-shirts smile and wave. You’d think it was cool to be on good terms with the principal, the way these kids are acting.

In fact, it is. Flanagan tells me it’s not only acceptable to like the principal, you don’t get labeled geek these days for taking more classes than required for graduation.

We hop on and off the cart as I tour the school—past the murals on hallway walls, the media center and library, the stadium and television studio. Mira Mesa High School has been touted as a success story by officials at the San Diego County Office of Education. Flanagan, who took over as principal five years ago, cleaned up the grounds, raised morale and got students and teachers excited about learning.

Yet when it comes to the issue of schools, no amount of positive press will take away the bad taste in parents’ mouths over California’s pitiful national standing. Reading skills of California’s fourth-graders rank among the worst in the nation: 38th of 39 states included in federal testing last year.

Students here were compared with an “average” student’s performance, but teachers and administrators complain the rankings aren’t fair. Statewide generally, and in San Diego specifically, the average student’s profile is ever-changing. More than 60 languages are spoken by students in this county, and English isn’t always their first, a factor cited as a major contributor to low test scores. Some students, like many living in National City, are among the most impoverished in the nation.

Consequently, parents are concerned, especially for kids entering high school —which many parents see as the crucial step in preparation for college and career. Determining the quality of a neighborhood high school isn’t easy. How can you tell if yours is a “good” one?

A ranking system might help, and that’s why state Senator Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) wrote the Public School Performance Accountability Act of 1999, which became law this year. The act was created to hold schools responsible for performance. Schools that show improvement will receive financial rewards; those that don’t will lose teachers and principals—even face closure.

“Is this a perfectly fair system?” asks Alpert. “No, but parents need to be able to understand it. I made it as straightforward as possible, based on standardized test scores, graduation rates and student and teacher attendance.”

Alan Bersin, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, declined even to issue a “no comment” on the politically touchy subject of the reputation of city schools. He passed off the question to a PR specialist.

“Alan feels he is not the right person to speak with about this,” says spokesperson Sue Pondrom. But if not the superintendent, then who?

Suggests Pondrom: Talk to Maruta Gardner, hand-picked by Bersin to be instructional leader at the Institute for Learning at San Diego City Schools. The institute is trying to raise the level of instruction at schools throughout the city, but Gardner says there are excellent teachers and programs in every school. “I can say that unequivocally,” she says. “And there are weak points at every school, no matter where.”

Those weak points often can be spotted using standardized test scores. Although far from being a complete picture of a school, the numbers are a starting point. Scores for every school in the county are available from the county’s education office. They are based on the statewide Stanford Achievement Test (and ASAT, the abbreviated version) given in grades 9, 10 and 11, which measures progress in basic skills like reading and math.

In 1998, California also began administering a test known as STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) that measures math and language arts ability and is based on a national norm. Although STAR scores are not included in the school accountability report cards—also available for every public school—they are published on the County Office of Education’s Web site (http:// star.cde.ca.gov).

Take a quick glance at the scores of schools throughout the county and you notice one thing: The high numbers are where you expect them to be—in largely white, affluent areas—giving high schools like Poway, Scripps Ranch, Torrey Pines and La Jolla excellent reputations, and urban schools like Crawford, Mar Vista and San Diego High mixed reviews.

“I think there are good high schools everywhere. But I think the schools that have advantages of location certainly seem to be more attractive to people—especially in suburban communities,” says Bob Reeves, superintendent of the Poway School District. “Take North County, Escondido, Poway out through Torrey Pines and through La Jolla—that’s where you find the better-performing schools.” Yet countywide, administrators are reluctant to concede this, fearing parents will make quick judgments based on test scores and nothing else.

“La Jolla High has scored very well; we’re usually number 1 in our district in many of the categories,” says LJH principal Dana Shelburne. “And that feeds the public image that we are a good high school.” But is it all image?

Shelburne says his students often win academic competitions like the Science Olympiad, speech and debate-team contests and mock trials. About 94 percent of LJH seniors will go on to two- and four-year colleges. The school has an underground fiber-optic network supporting computers in every classroom, a science program that features on-line experiments, and video-conferencing equipment that allows students to “visit” museums across the country. It also has a somewhat diverse student body, thanks to a choice program called VEEP (Voluntary Ethnic Enrollment Program), which opens the school to minority students who live outside the La Jolla area.

“More and more, residents are choosing La Jolla High rather than going to private schools,” says Shelburne. “I have parents tell me all the time that their children experience a diversity here they wouldn’t get in a fairly homogeneous private school setting.” But just the fact that these parents can consider $11,000-a-year private schools illustrates the difference between students at La Jolla High and those attending a school at the low end of the test-score spectrum, like Crawford in east San Diego.

Compared to La Jolla’s scores of more than 75 percent, scores at Crawford in reading and language are below 50 percent; in math, they’re slightly higher than 50 percent. What do these numbers say?

“That socioeconomics has a huge impact on students,” answers Julie Elliott, Crawford’s principal. “About 80 percent of our students are in the free-and-reduced lunch program, which means they are low-income. These kids don’t have reading materials in their homes, access to computers, that kind of thing. Poverty does not give a child advantages.”

Crawford’s population is a mix of Latinos, Indochinese, Africans, African-Americans, Europeans and Anglos. Elliott says the school has a strong support system for immigrant and refugee students. But the population is so unique, she feels it’s unfair to judge Crawford against other schools —locally and nationally.

“We’re being compared with schools in middle America where everyone speaks English,” says Elliott. “We start with some kids who have never even been in a school before, and they are 16 or 17 years old, kids who cannot identify a number or a letter.” Yet Crawford boasts an extremely successful AVID (Advanced via Individual Determination) program that targets students at risk and helps ensure they proceed from high school to college. All 33 senior participants in last year’s AVID program went on to four-year colleges.

Other statistics are important as well in judging a school. Look at the percentage of seniors that go on to two- and four-year colleges. Dropout and attendance rates give parents a feel for the commitment levels of students and teachers.

Reputations of schools—whether good, bad, dangerous, gang-ridden—are often founded on the reputation of the school’s neighborhood, rather than the school itself. For instance, when Rachel Flanagan first came to Mira Mesa High School, its reputation was that of a gang school, she says.

“Everywhere I went I heard that, and I couldn’t understand it,” says Flanagan. “I checked with the police department, and they didn’t have numerous reported crimes or citations. Sometimes parents hear of an incident in the community and attribute it to the school; sometimes they look at the racial makeup of the school and form an opinion, whether or not the facts are there.”

Larry Shaw, an SDSU professor of teacher education who specializes in secondary education, agrees: “I have student teachers at Crawford and Mann [Middle School]—schools that have poor reputations and low test scores—who say they like those schools best and have some really good students, despite the stereotype of an inner-city school.”

Bob Stein, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Grossmont Union High School District, suggests parents examine the whole school, instead of relying solely on scores and hearsay. “The primary thing to look at is the kind of instructional program a school has, the mission and vision,” he says. “Are kids getting the core courses—programs that apply to English, math, social studies and science? And can students select career interests early on?”

Administrators, teachers and parents overwhelmingly recommend visiting a high school under consideration. Tops on everyone’s checklist: safety. Without a safe and secure environment, proper learning can’t take place. Walk around the campus and take note of the number of unmanned, unlocked entrances. Is it an open campus? Are students allowed out for lunch? Parents may prefer that their children not be allowed to leave the campus during the school day.

Don’t jump to the conclusion a school is unsafe simply because it’s located in an urban setting. Look at the recent slayings at the largely white, upper-middle-class Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

“Schools are invariably the safest parts of their communities, from one end of the country to the other,” says Jim Esterbooks, public information officer at the San Diego County Office of Education. “Twenty-five million kids go to school each day in this country, and less than 10 have done these terrible things at schools over the last 18 months.”

That sentiment is echoed by Tom Hall, school police chief for the San Diego Unified District, who also comments, “There’s no guarantee that what happened at Columbine won’t happen anywhere else. There are limits to what you can do to provide security and awareness. But we work with teachers and staff to be on the lookout for student behaviors that signal trouble.” A full-time officer is stationed at 14 of the city’s 16 high schools (Clairemont and La Jolla are the exceptions).

Next, look at the school’s course offerings—required courses and electives—to see if they suit your child’s educational objectives. “If there isn’t an honors program or AP [advanced placement] classes, for example, and your child wants to go on to college, you should consider enrolling him somewhere else,” advises Shaw. He also suggests trying to find out if a school has high expectations for its students. “If parents say their child hardly shows up for class and still gets A’s and B’s, you know expectations are low,” he says.

Throughout the county, there are numerous magnet schools that offer specialized programs, such as Kearny High School’s global technology program or the communications, marketing and business magnet at Mission Bay. That program draws kids from all over the city, says principal Michele Marcus.

Mission Bay’s students are largely low-income, yet test scores are solid, dropout rates are low (less than 2 percent), and many seniors are heading off to college. “We have an outstanding professional staff,” says Marcus. “A school is only as good as its teachers.”

John Turner is one of those Mission Bay teachers, handling the subjects of history and economics as well as coaching football and basketball. “Parents should look at extracurricular activities as well as course offerings,” he advises. “You don’t want students to just punch the clock. They need to be involved, so check out participation in clubs, sports and music programs. You need to see kids buying into a sense of community.”

San Dieguito Academy is a North County high school with a stellar reputation, so good it had to turn 200 students down for admission next fall. Four years ago, when La Costa Canyon High School was built

in the district (which already included Torrey Pines), it was feared parents would abandon the 60-year-old academy for the newer school. So principal Fran Fenical created a program based on input from students and parents. Now students can take more classes than at traditional high schools, with private-school-type electives like Japanese and musical instrument digital interface.

Fenical sees the differences between public high schools as necessary and important, because all students are not the same. “For example, we don’t have a football team,” she says. “If students really want the traditional feel of a high school, they probably wouldn’t come here. Yet other students are a perfect match for us. Parents need to know their kids, and kids need to know themselves.”

Keri Acosta, a junior at Mira Mesa High, says her family recently moved to Poway —an area whose high school has an excellent reputation. But her parents gave her the option of transferring to Poway or finishing at Mira Mesa. “I wanted to stay here at Mira Mesa,” Acosta says. “I visited Poway High School, and it’s huge. I would be like an ant there. Here, I feel like I make a difference.”

All this information may help you decide which school is best for a child, but without parent involvement, there’s no guarantee that child will succeed. “The main thing to realize is that the job of educating your child is yours as a parent, not the school’s,” says Scott Chipman, co-president of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association at Mission Bay High School.

“Before sending my children to this high school, I talked to other parents with kids here and visited the school,” Chipman says. “But I also know what my children are doing on a daily basis and what their teachers expect of them. Parents need to recognize their responsibility for education. You can’t just send your kids off to school and then wonder why they aren’t doing well.”

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