Encinitas resident Kathryn Keener purchased her home because it was a block from Ocean Knoll Elementary School and faces the baseball field at San Dieguito Academy High School, a perfect place to raise her family. They live close enough for home run balls to occasionally land in their yard.
“I cannot even fathom that despite being able to throw a ball back over the school fence, we would be unable to send our children there,” Keener said.
For the first time in several years, there may be a lottery to get into San Dieguito Academy High School.
In the San Dieguito Union High School District, students have a choice to attend their boundary high school, La Costa Canyon or Torrey Pines High School, or one of the two non-boundary academies San Dieguito and Canyon Crest Academy which have open enrollment.
The district’s high school selection window ended on Feb. 18 and if the demand exceeds the school’s capacity, the district will conduct a random lottery to determine which students will be able to attend. According to Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller, the district is anticipating that there will be a lottery at SDA this year— an official decision on the lottery will be made on Feb. 23 at 4 p.m.
Per the Open Enrollment Act of 1993, school districts must allow transfers as long as there is space and, if demand exceeds capacity, the district must conduct an unbiased lottery. The law allows only three exceptions to the random lottery: if a student faces a threat of bodily harm at one school; if a student is the child of an employee; or if a sibling is already attending the school.
The law does not allow geographic proximity to be a priority.
Parents told the SDUHSD board that they were strongly opposed to the concept of a lottery that could displace students from a school they might be able to walk or bike to, particularly during the hardship of these lost pandemic school years: “Don’t do this to this cohort of children.”
Parent Steven Gerken described how his son missed his entire seventh grade year at Oak Crest and wasn’t able to make any new friends. “He never even met his teachers.” In eighth grade he has finally established a core group of friends, a support system that could be threatened if they are all unable to go their neighborhood school together.
“I’m speaking for the kids and the kids are not alright,” said parent Beth Garrett. “We are in the midst of a teen mental health crisis and I’m dumbfounded that you would propose bringing back this system at a time when mental health is in dire straights…This is a crucial time when they need predictability and a level of normalcy …this incoming class has not experienced a normal school year since fifth grade.”
Due to SDA’s popularity, the district needs to shrink the school due to issues created by overcrowding.
“We’re at 2,100 students now and parents at SDA have said to me that it’s too many kids, that it’s a safety issue,” said Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward. “Staying at that number could be a problem.”
Additional capacity has been added since 2001, as enrollment increased 107%, from 1997 to 2021. According to John Addleman, SDUHSD’s executive director of planning services, the ideal capacity has not been able to keep up with the high demand.
Teacher workspace and usable outdoor instructional space have been reduced due to the school’s high numbers. The additional students and staff on campus have caused an impact on offsite neighborhood parking and the increased use of the site with no increase in maintenance staffing has caused an increase in the disrepair of facilities and grounds.
During public comment, one parent said her SDA junior is negatively impacted by the overcrowding—her daughter has called panicked on several mornings to tell her she can’t find a place to park to go to school. She also couldn’t get into an AP science course which could leave her with a deficiency in her college applications.
Miller said the board’s policy as written gives the option, if necessary, for the lottery to be conducted. SDUHSD President Mo Muir voted against the revised policy at the board’s Feb. 10 meeting, which had been updated to reflect school selection dates.
“Our kids have had the worst two years of their entire life because of COVID and to possibly deny a child to go to another school without their friends, their most important support group, I could never support that,” Muir said. “Our kids’ health and wellness is paramount to me.”
At the board’s Feb. 17 meeting, they set the number for SDA’s freshman class. Last year’s freshman class was 560 students and this year’s 12th grade is 453 graduating seniors. Staff initially recommended a freshman class of 375 students based on getting to an ideal student population of 1,850 in two years, however, the board had the option to increase the number to get 1,850 over the course of more years.
The board settled on a freshman class of 428 and while the district is anticipating a lottery, with attrition they hope most students on the waitlist would get in. The district would also reserve 15 slots at 10th grade, 10 at 11th and 5 at 12th grade— anything above that would trigger a lottery.
“There’s no easy decision but we’re trying to do the greatest good,” Miller said of district staff’s compromise to admit a higher number.
SDUHSD Vice President Michael Allman said he feels bad about the scenarios he’s heard, of students in such close proximity to SDA. close enough to walk to school or even throw a baseball and perhaps not being able to attend.
“I feel sick to my stomach to tell many parents that there is a chance, depending on how many people choose SDA, that you may not get the school of your choice,” Allman said. “I think that is a failure of our district.”
He had questioned what kind of options would be available to the district to allow proximity to be taken into account in the event of a lottery, to allow more students to get into their school of choice.
A similar process played out in the district back in 2014 after 65 students did not get into their choice school of SDA. The district was able to find room for all waitlisted freshmen that year, including an additional 125 waitlisted students at CCA.
That situation kicked off a year’s worth of workshops, surveys and debates around the high school enrollment process in which the district considered three options: to draw boundaries around all four high schools, to maintain the current mix of boundary and open enrollment schools, or to draw small boundaries around San Dieguito and Canyon Crest to give preference to students who live close to the schools.
After the year-long process, in 2015, the board determined that the selection process would not change. Muir, the only trustee on the board at the time, advocated against holding lotteries.
Clerk Melisse Mossy said if the schools cannot accommodate a student, they should work to redirect a disappointment into a positive and ensure every kid has a successful experience from day one. She suggested developing a newcomers committee with resources for students, considering buses for those with transportation hardships and planning summer activities, first-day activities and newcomer orientation for kids who are transfers— “intentional things to make sure no child feels traumatized by having to face a situation that is super stressful for them.”
“The lottery is not new, but we can do a better job of preparing our families,” Mossy said.