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SD Unified School District facing serious enrollment decline


The San Diego Unified School District is facing a serious enrollment decline. But the problem isn't new. Thousands of students have been leaving the district for the past five years. Many believe the district's charter school boom is partly to blame. KPBS reporter Ana Tintocalis has more.

If you peek inside one of San Diego's public schools you'll find a lot more empty chairs. Roy McFail analyzes San Diego Unified's enrollment figures and says the district is facing another tough year.

McFail: "Enrollment fell by about 2,800 students, and that's a similar rate to what we've seen over the last several years. And in fact since the year 2000, our enrollment has fallen by about
9,000 students, which is about six percent."

District officials say there are two obvious reasons why enrollment is declining. The first reason is the cost of living. Many young families have moved to the suburbs with their kids because they can't afford to live in San Diego. The second reason is fewer babies are being born. But San Diego's school superintendent Carl Cohn says there's a third factor at play, and he wants to get to the bottom of it.

Cohn: "We need to be good educators and researchers and drill down and find out. Sometimes in bureaucracies you don't want to drill down because you don't want to face that third thing."

Cohn believes the third thing is the charter school movement in San Diego. He says too many parents are pulling their children out of district-run schools and enrolling them into independent charter schools. Currently there are 34 charters in San Diego. More than 12,000 students are enrolled -- that's a three-percent jump over the past five years.

The Albert Einstein Academy in Golden Hill is a charter school that's attracting parents and students from all over the city. It has a unique language-immersion program where students from kindergarten through sixth grade are taught German. Lilian Rice drives across San Diego so her son can attend the school. She says traditional public schools are no match for a charter like the Einstein Academy.

Rice: "I don't know how they do it, but they teach them how to love to study, how to respect each other, and they work as a team. So I was very lucky to find this charter school and I drive a long ways."

Rice says she pulled her son from a district-run school because the classes were too big and the curriculum was uninspiring.

In the Rolando neighborhood Keiller Middle School was recently converted to Keiller Leadership Academy. The district lost more than 500 students when that happened. Principal Patricia Ladd says parents are drawn to Keiller because they feel like they can make a difference in their child's education.

Ladd: "A really large bureaucratic machine such as San Diego Unified cannot offer the same kind of open armed customer-service friendly place that a small school such as Keiller leadership Academy, can. We are in a sense our own district."

Ladd says since her school turned charter, suspension rates have declined, students behave better, and test scores have improved.

For his part, Superintendent Cohn intends to study all the factors causing the enrollment decline in San Diego Unified. And he plans to assign an expert this year to analyze the charter schools' impact on enrollment. Cohn is credited with turning around the public schools in Long Beach before arriving in San Diego last year.

Cohn: "This notion that the only way you can get high standards dress behavior and achievement is by going charter, I just don't buy it because for 10 years in Long Beach we did that and they didn't have to go charter."

The San Diego Unified school district faces a difficult situation. The more it loses enrollment to charters, the more it loses state funding. Meanwhile district officials continue to approve plans for more charter schools. And existing charter schools are adding on more grades because they're expanding. The school district is currently facing two lawsuits to meet charter schools' demands for space. Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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