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Desegregation the San Diego way -- no forced busing

Anyone witnessing the docking of a giant aircraft carrier in the harbor of this beautiful port city realizes the maneuver demands great skill, teamwork, and leadership. And in this still-growing city (ranked eight-largest in the United States), such a naval scene serves as a backdrop to another, even more complicated and delicate berthing.

What is involved is schools instead of ships and students instead of sailors. Somewhere between the open water of neighborhood schools and the hard shoreline of de facto segregated residential patterns, San Diego must find the mooring for integrated schools.

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The city has chosen to try to accomplish this without mandatory busing. Since a 1977 court order, San Diego has steered a course it feels appropriate to its own setting, but one that also offers hopeful strategies for other cities where forced busing all too often has left schools on the rocks.

There appear to be four tacks taken by those running the San Diego desegregation course which they feel make a successful result possible.

* A magnet school program attractive enough in instructional quality and specialized educational programs (such as computer science courses, the performing arts, or advanced science and mathematics) to make white, Hispanic, black, and Asian parents want to voluntarily bus their children out of their own neighborhood schools and into magnet schools.

School officials and the court agreed that providing a specialized and quality program that could not be found elsewhere in the district, a "supply side" answer to integration as it is sometimes called, was possibly the only option open if busing was to be voluntary, not just one way with a white school at the end of the ride for minorities.

Magnet schools foster rather than hinder the desired racial mix by having majority white students come into a minority isolated school.

* A residential-enrollment-preference plan that safeguards the rights of low-income, minority students from being excluded on academic grounds from the new magnet schools. Any child who lives in the area of a magnet school may attend it.

The initial magnet programs are placed in schools where minority students are actually in the majority (80 percent or more) and where there is room for many more students as the magnet program grows.

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Locating magnet schools in minority areas and upgrading the existing schools can be seen as an educational version of urban renewal. But since the magnet school replaces an individual school in a traditional neighborhood zone, a child living in that zone can automatically attend the magnet school.

During the initial periods of urban renewal in the '60s, in many instances the renewal resulted in removal of the poor as sections of cities were upgraded. Rising property values drove out the very groups singled out for assistance. San Diego feels it has protected itself against an educational version of urban removal.

* Making the principal the key to magnet school success; that is, he or she has been given a great deal of autonomy, especially in the hiring of teachers. The selection of the principal in a magnet school is governed by special criteria with instructional leadership and community relations heading the list.

Teacher expectations about minority academic abilities are the subject of numerous inservice sessions. The starting point for all staff at magnet schools is that every child can learn.

When a child isn't succeeding in mastering basic skills, the principal looks first at the school to correct the problem, rather than the child and the child's family background.

Parent, community, and teacher organizations are all actively involved in drawing up guidelines for the magnet school.

* A court-ordered "educational outcomes" program based on student scores on standardized test measurements. In 23 schools that are 80 percent or more minority the San Diego Superior Court has sought to guarantee effective education while the hoped-for normal course of integration occurs under the magnet program.

The court ordered that some 50 percent of all the pupils attending these 23 schools must have acceptable test score levels.It determined an "acceptable" test level to be "at or above the norm for their grade level on the California Test of Basic Skills."

All 23 schools emphasize instruction in the basic skills. The first stage of the program was initiated on the elementary level this school year. Independent curriculum advisers from outside the district were hired as consultants by the school board, functioning much like pilots on tugboats, an apt image for the court's present role in the schools.

In addition to the four programs already mentioned, San Diego also has a voluntary ethnic enrollment plan (VEEP) which encourages any pupil enrolled in a school where the minority or majority student population is overrepresented to enroll in an allied school where the same minority or majority population is underrepresented.

Critics claim this has too often meant "one-way busing, with minority students the only ones bused."

An elementary instructional exchange program which permits pairs or groups of schools to develop plans that provide for joint activities and promote full-time , two-way movement of students, also exists.

There are those, of course, who prefer a more direct approach: mandatory busing. They are frankly dubious that the magnet school program will be the answer to desegregation requirements.

Of the 10 most populous cities in the US, San Diego is the only one with more white than minority students enrolled in its public schools. As of January 1981 , the breakdown is: 56 percent Anglo, 18 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black, and 11 percent Asian.

Veronica Roeser, chief counsel for the plaintiffs in the San Diego desegregation suit, counters the claim "that the unique position of San Diego's population mix when compared with other major cities warrants a voluntary approach."

The same uniqueness can justify "a mandatory approach," she says. "San Diego is playing with images; there are still 23 segregated schools, the same number as when the court stepped in to integrate the schools. Is the court aware of the separate but equal implications in mandating outcomes?" she asks.

And then an even toughter question: "Why has the judge seen fit to mandate educational outcomes in these 23 schools if voluntary integration is working?"

Money, like a killer submarine, threatens the integration plan. Eighty percent of the school district's budget comes from the state at a time when California faces the budgetary restraints imposed by Proposition 13, without the benefits of the pre-prop. 13 budget surplus.

Any curtailment of state assistance could severely hamper district and court integration objectives.

At present, California law requires the state to fund all state-mandated programs. But San Diego School Superintendent Thomas L. Goodman points out that the amount of funds being suggested as the state's share for integration programs for next year is not enough to cover the present costs of the Los Angeles integration plan, a mandatory plan.

Supt. Goodman says, "If a fiscal crunch hits we will look at our priorities and spell them out very clearly. Integration and quality education are at the top of the list regardless of what the courts do. We will also continue to be heavily involved in lobbying on both the state and federal level for financial assistance."

[Before the Monitor went to press but after speaking with Supt. Goodman, the California State Supreme Court handed opponents of forced busing a major legal victory. The court decided to let stand a lower court's ruling favoring proposition 1, an initiative approved by California voters in 1979 to prohibit court-ordered busing unless it was intended to correct intentional segregation. Until the smoke clears what impact if any this will have on state funding cannot be determined.]

No one this reporter talked with in the San Diego school system feels that magnet schools -- alone -- can solve the full desegregation problem, particularly with a shifting population.

But the 1980-81 school year started off with one-sixth of all San Diego public school pupils in magnet schools and what appears to be not only a court-ordered requirement that quality and sound test scores be the emphasis, but a mandate firmly held by school teachers and administrators as well.

The SS San Diego school system is not docket yet, but even amid criticisms and skepticism, captain and crew are acting as though it will.

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