Andy Hinds | Parenting
A few years before Balboa Park was developed for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition into the world-class recreational and cultural complex San Diegans and tourists know and love today, another nearby institution sprang from the sandy soil to serve the growing population of the area: Jefferson Elementary School. Jefferson will be observing its Centennial on May 28th, and hopes to bring together students, alumni and neighbors to celebrate both the history and the future of the elementary school in the heart of North Park.
I should add a disclaimer before going on: By the time this column is published I will have enrolled my twin daughters into kindergarten at Jefferson, and I’m a member of “Friends of Jefferson,” a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the school.
San Diego’s population was booming in the early 1900s, and, according to Donald P. Covington’s “North Park: A San Diego Urban Village,” “…in June 1912, the Board of Education announced that an entire block in West End had been purchased for $12,000 for the purpose of building a new elementary school ‘to relieve the congested condition now existing in the northeast district.’ ” That school would become Jefferson Elementary. The original plans, drawn by T.C. Kistner, called for a “sixteen-room building of ‘fireproof’ hollow tile and stucco construction in the decorative Spanish Revival Style of the Exposition currently under construction in Balboa Park.”
Photos of the old Jefferson Elementary in Covington’s book as well as on the San Diego History Center’s website (sandiegohistory.org) show a stately building that would have indeed been at home on the Prado. So how did it go from a grand Spanish Revival to the rather nondescript, low-profile, modern-ish campus of the sixties all the way through the aughts, and finally make its most recent transformation into the bright, welcoming, school we see today?
I called the San Diego History Center to see if I could find out more about how and when the old, Spanish-style school was demolished and replaced with the modern version. The archivist there found some old newspaper articles explaining that there had been a vote in 1959 to tear down the old school because parts of it were unsafe and it needed to be updated and enlarged. The construction of the new Jefferson Elementary was completed in 1961, and included a “modernistic screen wall” on the east side of the “patio play yard” made out of tiles from the old building’s roof.
Through the years, more changes and improvements were made, including a makeover of the grounds when the sports field became a joint-use park in 2012, open to the community when school is not in session. Sadly, the “modernistic screen wall” is nowhere to be seen.
But despite the improvements, Jefferson remained largely hidden from the rest of the neighborhood for decades, behind a red cinder-block wall. Many people who drove by it several times a day had no idea that it was even a school.
This is an apt metaphor for how Jefferson was regarded by many families who were zoned to send their kids to school there. I wrote an article about the school for Uptown News in January, 2013 (see Vol. 5 Issue 1 “Hidden in the heart of North Park: Thomas Jefferson Elementary”) exploring the reasons that so few parents I knew in the Morley Field area wanted to enroll their kids at Jefferson. Essentially, I found that a vicious cycle had arisen, partially as an unintended consequence of the “school choice” movement that arose in an attempt to desegregate schools. Middle-class, educated parents were enticed to send their kids to schools outside their zone, including charters, magnets and even garden-variety public schools with slightly better scores. As these families opted out of Jefferson, families from other neighborhoods opted in, because Jefferson seemed better than their own zone schools. The demographics changed, and no longer reflected those of the Morley Field neighborhood. The vast majority of students were “socioeconomically disadvantaged” (to use school district parlance), and more than half were “English language learners;” and, as is usually the case, these statistics have a correlation to lower test scores. Middle-class parents factored these scores into their decisions about where to send their kids to school, the demographics of Jefferson became entrenched, and the vicious cycle was completed.
But it’s clear that a renaissance is afoot at Jefferson. They have been part of the International Baccalaureate program for four years now, during which time their test scores have steadily improved. And, as of a few months ago, they were designated as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Magnet school, a title that comes with a $10 million federal grant to fund the staffing, technology, and professional development to help inspire young students to pursue the subjects crucial to 21st-century life and work. They are also benefiting from the support of community organizations like North Park Main Street and local businesses who want to see their neighborhood elementary become not just a decent option for locals, but a standout school that helps draw more families into the community. (And let’s not forget all the help they have gotten from — ahem — Friends of Jefferson. Visit the website at friendsofjefferson.org! Click on the “Give” button!)
The architecture analogy came full-circle as Principal Francisco Morga cut the ribbon stretched across the new entrance to Jefferson Elementary on March 3rd. Gone is the “ugly red wall” (as a fifth-grade speaker at the event called it); in its place is a graceful translucent awning that hovers over a gleaming steel fence festooned with silhouettes of children walking and playing. People walking or driving by can now get a sense of what’s going on in the bustling schoolyard, and, conversely, the school is now open to the energy of North Park. After a century of transformation, Jefferson is once again in sync with the neighborhood it was first built to serve.
Finally, a request: We hope to recruit more alumni to attend and perhaps speak at the event. Unfortunately, data on students who attended more than a few decades ago is very sparse, so we are asking alumni to call the school at 619-344-3300 and leave your information so that we can send them invitations. Or you can email Friends of Jefferson at email@example.com. If you are an alumnus, or you know anybody who is, please pass on this information!