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Hidden in the heart of North Park: Thomas Jefferson Elementary

Posted: January 21st, 2013 | Featured, Hillcrest, Lifestyle, North Park, Parenting | 3 Comments

Andy Hinds | Parenting

As is the case for parents everywhere, my playground small talk is pretty predictable. Being the dad of preschool-aged kids, I’ve had the same conversation everyone else has hundreds of times.

It’s the one that starts: “Where are you sending them for kindergarten?”

When I was a kid, I don’t think my parents and their neighbors had this conversation. Almost everyone sent their children to The School. You know, the one down the street.

We live in the Morley Field section of North Park, and we love our neighborhood. Not only is it hip and exciting for adults, but it’s also an amazing place for our kids, with playgrounds, parks, nature trails, museums and family friendly businesses all within walking or biking distance.

But when I ask local parents where they are sending their kids to kindergarten or elementary school, they almost never reply “the one down the street.”

The default public school that our kids would go to is Thomas Jefferson Elementary, also known – if at all – as the school behind the KFC. A lot of the parents I talk to have never seen Jefferson, much less considered sending their kids to it. It’s not that Jefferson has a bad reputation; it’s just that it doesn’t have much of a reputation at all. With all the different public school options that San Diego families have, the perfectly good schools in our own neighborhoods can sometimes get overlooked.

When I started thinking about our choices for schools, I couldn’t find very much information about Jefferson. All the chatter online and at the playground was centered on magnets, charters and schools in nearby neighborhoods with better test scores, like McKinley Elementary and Birney Elementary.

It wasn’t until a friend invited me to a meeting at the home of another family in the neighborhood that I started to understand why no one had any first-hand intel on Jefferson. Not only did no one at this meeting of 20 or so families send their kids to this school, none of them even knew anyone who sent their kids there either.

Some people at the meeting had looked at Jefferson’s demographics and test scores, and as we discussed them, a vicious cycle narrative emerged.

The Jefferson zone is ethnically, economically and socially diverse, with housing that ranges from dense apartment complexes to stately historical homes. Though I meet all kinds of folks when I’m out with my kids, my experience suggests that there is a large and growing contingent of highly educated, professional, economically secure parents in the area.

In a 2010-11 Accountability Progress Report, the statistics for Jefferson Elementary, however, show a student body that has only one “numerically significant” ethnic group: “Hispanic or Latino.” Over half of the students are “English language learners,” and 98.5 percent are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” The standardized test scores that measure academic achievement are significantly lower than several similar schools.

Local, middle-class parents who are heavily involved in their children’s education as well as a school’s performance and culture are dissuaded by these stats from considering Jefferson as a viable option, leaving seats at the school open for students from other neighborhoods whose parents do want to “choice in” to Jefferson rather than go to their own local schools, which have much more serious struggles.

Thus, the demographics of Jefferson do not reflect the demographics of the neighborhood it is meant to serve, and despite physical and philosophical changes within the school, progress toward improving the statistics (i.e. test scores) that these parents put so much stock in, has been slow.

Since that first neighborhood meeting, my wife and I have been active with the group Friends of Jefferson Elementary, holding meetings at the homes of members to discuss how we can help Jefferson become a school that would be a top choice for parents, as well as touring the school and attending events. We have met several times with the principal, Francisco Morga, who has been enthusiastic about our involvement and excited about the improvements that have made at the school during his tenure, as well as the changes he sees coming down the pike.

I had a chance to talk to San Diego Unified School District Board President Richard Barrera about Jefferson. He gave me a little history about the demographic disparity between the neighborhood and its school, and offered encouraging words for anyone who hopes that a few families can have a big effect on a school.

Barrera explained to me that decades ago, when the San Diego schools were ordered to desegregate, the thinking was that offering near-unlimited school choice would create more diversity in the classroom. The results, however, have been mixed and complicated. Some schools have become less segregated, and some, like Jefferson, have actually gotten more segregated or stayed the same. Meanwhile, children all over the district are taking buses or being driven right past their neighborhood schools as they commute to the one they have “choiced” into.

Barrera said that there is a new focus in the district to address this situation, a “strategic process for quality schools in every neighborhood,” wherein resources and energy will be spent on improving neighborhood schools rather than on shuttling kids to schools outside of their zone. He emphasized that they do not want to limit the choices parents and students have, but would rather invest in schools to make them attractive to the families who live near them.

When I asked Barrera why some schools not too far from Jefferson, in demographically similar neighborhoods, had higher test scores and a better reputation, he mentioned two factors: the International Baccalaureate (IB) program – a curriculum focused on educating students as “global citizens” – and parent involvement. He said McKinley and Birney are very sought after and have well-established IB programs in place. They also have highly involved parents who are effective fundraisers. If you went to the incredible SoNo Park Holiday Fest and Chilipalooza this past December for instance, you witnessed the vision and organizational power of the McKinley Parent Teacher Club.

The good news for Jefferson, Barrera said, is that they have now been certified as an IB school, and with increased parental involvement, there is no reason it can’t compete with any in the area. “McKinley and Birney have made great progress in the last five years,” Barrera said, “and I anticipate the same trajectory for Jefferson.”

Jefferson’s principal is similarly upbeat about his school’s prospects. Morga said he is proud of the 37-point improvement in Jefferson’s Academic Performance Index during his four-year tenure. He attributes the progress largely to their involvement in the IB program, which started when he took over as principal.

If there is a renaissance in the making at Jefferson, the most tangible evidence is its physical appearance. When you tour the school, Morga will excitedly point out all the details of the major renovations on the campus that have taken place over the past few years, and direct you to the model showing future improvements that will lend the school curb appeal. Aesthetics may seem a bit frivolous when thinking about fundamental problems in a school, but I thought about the way Jefferson looked five years ago: shabby and weather beaten, with a dustbowl for a sports field. It would have been almost impossible to convince me to send my kids to such a dreary place.

Friends of Jefferson founder An Bui said it was her love of the neighborhood that led her to start the group. “The only thing lacking were good public schools for our children,” she said. “We became convinced that our best option was to improve our local schools. We felt the renaissance of the neighborhood school concept could be the catalyst for school improvement. If we could get a critical mass of local families to send their children to the neighborhood school and get these parents involved, we could bring about change.”

Bui said the group’s main goals are to “increase the number of neighborhood children in attendance, to increase parent involvement, and to create foundation to fund enrichment programs and extracurricular activities.”

For more information about Jefferson Elementary visit sandi.net/Jefferson. For information about Friends of Jefferson meetings and events, contact me or Bui at buiant@yahoo.com.

—Andy Hinds is a stay-at-home dad, blogger, freelance writer, carpenter and sometimes-adjunct writing professor. He is known on the internet as Beta Dad, but you might know him as that guy in North Park whose kids ride in a dog-drawn wagon. Read his personal blog at butterbeanandcobra.blogspot.com. Reach him at betadad@gmail.com or @betadad on Twitter.

3 Comments

  1. Reminds me of where we were a few years ago in our in-town ‘hood in Atlanta. After the teachers got caught in a cheating scandal, however, we gave up on our failing local school and moved to a more affluent ‘hood with better schools. Good luck in your efforts!

  2. Phillip Troutman says:

    First, full disclosure: I’m a friend of Andy, living in Fairfax County, Virginia, so he’s heard a bit of our experience. But let me share it here, to boost what he and others are doing in San Diego: Although Fairfax is one of the wealthiest counties in Virginia, we happened (without realizing it–we didn’t even check!) to move into the economically poorest elementary school district in the county, a Title I school where 83% qualify for federal free and reduced meals. The majority of children are from immigrant families, with 54% receiving additional English-language help. Two-thirds of students are Hispanic, with the rest evenly split between Asians, non-Hispanic whites, and non-Hispanic African Americans. Unlike the school in Andy’s neighborhood, apparently, our school did have a reputation, an unfortunate one (this was eight years ago). We heard that test scores were terrible, that the school focused mainly on teaching English to immigrants, that there was extremely high student turnover, and that white kids felt “uncomfortable” there (my spouse and our kids are Chinese, by the way; I am white).

    None of what we heard was true. All of this information came from well-meaning and otherwise liberal-minded people who had never set foot in the school, who had never sent their children there. So we checked the stats: test scores were low for Fairfax, but not without promise, especially given the English-language handicap. Student turnover was just above the county average; no big deal. We talked to white parents whose kids did attend, and they praised their teachers’ care and their kids’ positive experience with the school’s diversity. We visited the school ourselves and found it to be a wonderfully comfortable and welcoming place: artwork decorating the halls, smiling kids happily going to class–seriously, this was a comfortable place to be. We also had heard that parent involvement was low. True, PTA meetings were sparsely attended and fundraising was weak. But parents were involved in all sorts of other ways: walking their kids to and from school, sitting down to breakfast with them at the school, and attending parent-teacher meetings, family resources workshops, parent-child reading events, and large-scale events like International Night. Finally, a new principal brought in a new, collaborative teaching model that focused attention not only on what each class needed as a whole, but also what each individual student did well and needed more help with, so that test scores (to the extent that these mean something) rose dramatically. Graham Road Elementary School has been in the top 10% of Virginia elementary schools for several years now. And all this while maintaining a strong art and music program, despite budget cuts. We have excellent visual arts, band, orchestra, chorus, and an award-winning percussion ensemble. And, yes, we have also increased fundraising, though we realize this will never be the most important part of parent involvement.

    The lesson here for all parents facing the Kindergarten jitters: Visit your local public schools. Ask for a tour from the principal and a meeting with some of the teachers. Seek out parents whose children attend. Ask about the many ways parents can be involved in education, not just PTA/fundraising. Look for attributes in children other than test scores. Ask about enrichment, music, arts. And finally, assume that diversity is good for your children, not matter what their background. Public schools have played a critical role in the development of American democratic society, one we all need to sustain by our active involvement and engagement.

  3. Shula says:

    Thanks for the article Andy. In my opinion, ironically, it is the very fact that parents DO have choices now that is making it so difficult for neighborhood schools to excel – these choices are pulling away the parents most likely to contribute to their school (time and money).

    I live in NP too and we probably know a lot of the same families – families who are dedicated and highly motivated to see their childrens’ school succeed. IF we all just went to the NP neighborhood schools, those schools would undoubtedly improve, yet it is hard to resist some of the Charter school options that are ALREADY vastly superior.

    Perhaps we (as in society) should be asking why, given the same economic constraints, can the charter school a few miles away manage to keep class size at 20, but my neighborhood school is at 27? Why does the charter school have a professional art teacher, PE teacher, performing art teacher, and language program, but neighborhood schools have hardly any of those extras anymore? I’ve asked those questions, and the answer given is because Charter schools aren’t held to the same regulations and constraints that regular public schools are. Well then… time to remove those constraints. But unfortunately that is a bigger can of worms that will take more than a group of parents to address…

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