Jefferson Elementary: a century in North Park

Posted: April 25th, 2014 | Featured, Parenting | 1 Comment

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.


Andy Hinds

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 ( 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! 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 If you are an alumnus, or you know anybody who is, please pass on this information!ParentingSidebar






One Comments

  1. Joi Spencer says:

    I would just like to clarify a few things. School choice refers to the manner in which districts across the country chose to desegregate their schools. At the time of the school choice movement things like charter schools and the large focus on test scores were simply non-existent. So, why did “middle class” parents move their kids out of Jefferson? Well, as has been the case around the state of California, once neighborhood restrictions related to race were legally removed, spaces that were once all white were no longer so. This meant that non-white kids would now be eligible to attend school at Jefferson. Unfortunately white parents (you use the term “middle class” but movement was much more aligned to race than class) chose to move their kids into private schools, and boutique schools as you have stated. The statement, “the demographics changed and no longer reflected those of the Morley Field neighborhood” is accurate, but unfortunate indeed. There is a belief that once students of color enter a school the quality naturally goes down. The same is true for neighborhoods, which explains why we have so few truly integrated neighborhoods here in San Diego and across our state (and country). On a related note, there would be little need to revitalize a school like Jefferson if the white parents (mostly middle and upper middle class) had not left it in the first place. It’s need for funding is a very reflection of the white flight that it has endured. On a final note, English Language Learners have always been a part of the American landscape and American schools. European immigrants were almost all English Language Learners. In the case of Jefferson, like most (but not all) schools in California, English Language Learner is a code word for Latino/Hispanic.

    I know people in San Diego do not like to bring up the race issue, but I think it is important for white parents to resist the enticement to leave schools and communities once people of color/non-whites move in. If we want to have the beloved community we all desire, we have to resist long held stereotypes and unhealthy beliefs. I am happy to hear that you have enrolled your daughters in Jefferson and know that they will benefit from the beautiful cultural, racial and linguistic mix as well as the academic program that Jefferson provides.

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