Four o'clock Monday afternoon and a line of school buses heads west on Clairemont Boulevard-five in a row and one more trailing a few cars behind. The buses make their way onto southbound Interstate 5, where just ahead are two more buses. A quarter of a mile more down the freeway, another two buses join up with the group. The caravan, split between the middle and slow lanes, lasts only a minute before half of the buses split off to head east on Interstate 8; the rest continue south down I-5.
It's a scene that repeats each weekday, morning and afternoon. Buses from overcrowded "south of 8" schools each day bring in a little more than one-third of Clairemont schools' student body. The San Diego Unified School District has said repeatedly that if it weren't for busing programs, many Clairemont schools would be forced to close-something Clairemont folks, tired of being San Diego Unified School District's overflow catch-all, probably wouldn't mind a bit.
Beginning next fall-barring legal action-one more bus will be making the roundtrip each day, carrying anywhere from 15 to 30 kids, third through sixth graders, who've been placed on what the school district calls "suspended expulsion" for violating the district's zero-tolerance policy.
These kids are the youngest participants in the district's ALBA program (Alternative Learning for Behavior and Attitude)-there's also an ALBA middle school and high school-and must spend up to two semesters getting intensive counseling and instructional support before they can return to regular school. Seventh through 12th graders get two semesters in the ALBA program to shape up or be turned over to Summit, the county court's school for juvenile offenders. Students below seventh grade aren't eligible for the county program and will, ideally, shape up in two semesters or less at ALBA.
The majority of ALBA kids come from overcrowded, under-performing schools in San Diego's less-affluent neighborhoods and comprise mostly black and Latino boys.
The ALBA elementary school currently occupies two portable classrooms at the edge of a vacant Logan Heights lot that's the designated site for Laura Rodriguez Elementary, set to open in 2006. Last Tuesday, despite the protest of two Clairemont Town Council representatives, the school district's Board of Trustees voted 3-2 to move the Logan Heights ALBA program to a district-owned site in Clairemont. Trustees Ron Ottinger, Ed Lopez and Katherine Nakamura voted in favor of the move while Fran Zimmerman and John de Beck opposed it.
Last year, an attempt to move the ALBA program to University City was quashed by a 3-2 vote-Ottinger, Lopez and then-Trustee Sue Braun opposed and Zimmerman and de Beck in favor-after protest by University City residents who didn't want the program in their community.
It's not necessarily, then, one more bus full of out-of-the-area kids traveling north that has people in Clairemont upset, but rather the kind of student that bus is bringing to the community. Dorothy Jensen, the town council's school district liaison, says that although district Superintendent Alan Bersin has tried to paint her as the "bad guy" (her words), Clairemont's been more than accepting of other district programs. It's already home to ALBA's middle school program (seventh and eighth grades) and Riley, a school for severely emotionally disturbed kids in kindergarten through high school.
Special education-focused Del Sol Academy is also in Clairemont. Once ALBA elementary moves to town, all four sites will be within a couple blocks of each other. ALBA elementary and Del Sol will, in fact, occupy the same parcel of land-a potential violation of state education rules, which forbid schools of ALBA's sort to be situated on the same property as an existing school. At press time, Jensen was consulting with the state Department of Education to find out whether the ALBA move required at least a two-thirds majority vote by the school board.
Facilities planning department director Joe Wolf said that after careful study, the district wasn't able to come up with any other alternative sites.
Before the ALBA move, the Clairemont Town Council had discussed leasing that site from the district to be used as a senior center. "It's not a community-friendly program, any of the ALBA sites," said Jensen, who rejects the notion that the town council is either intolerant or remotely racist. Jensen noted that a lot of Clairemont parents, not happy with having students bused in from other parts of San Diego, have elected to send their students to University City schools. She believes the district has taken advantage of Clairemont's early willingness to absorb programs and students that there wasn't room for elsewhere.
As for the ALBA students, "I hope as much as anyone that these kids can be helped," said Jensen, who's worked most of her life in education. "Some kids have it tough, but some communities have it tough and we're one of them."
Anisha Dalal has been principal of all three ALBA programs for the past year. ALBA's administrative offices, along with its high school, are located just off El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights. With her middle school in Clairemont and elementary school in Logan Heights, Dalal spends a lot of time driving between the three sites. This, in fact, is the first year the program has been so compact. From April 1999 through June 2002, ALBA kids were divided up between five different sites, two of them leased storefronts.
ALBA students aren't necessarily the worst of the worst, Dalal explained. "Lots of kids who come, they've fallen through the cracks," she said. "Maybe they should have been assessed for special ed... or maybe the school didn't have enough resources to address the needs of the kids."
One of her fourth graders, Dalal said, came to ALBA reading at kindergarten level. His lack of ability is what put him in the ALBA program in the first place-frustrated in class, he behaved badly, got sent out of class and fell further behind, said Dalal. Since he's been at ALBA, where he's one of only a few students at his grade level, he's been making significant gains.
Dalal said that most of the elementary students are recommended by the board to attend ALBA for one semester-the minimum "sentence" for extended expulsion.
According to district numbers, in September 2002 there were three students in the ALBA elementary program. That number grew to 30 by May, down from 36 the previous year. The most recent enrollment figures had 12 students at ALBA last month-three fourth graders, two fifth graders and seven sixth graders. When CityBeat talked to Dalal this week, she put that number closer to 20. Until last year, Dalal said, sixth graders attended ALBA middle school but were moved to the elementary program to get them away from the negative influence of their older peers. This move broke with the district's middle-school model, under which sixth, seventh and eight grades are grouped together.
Discussions about where to put a program for problem kids begs a look at the overall issue of a zero-tolerance disciplinary policy-what it means and how it's applied to the youngest offenders. At last Tuesday's board meeting, Trustee and veteran teacher John de Beck used the opportunity of debate over the Clairemont move to question why the district needs a zero-tolerance policy for elementary school kids in the first place.
"As it stands," said de Beck in an e-mail to CityBeat, "the elementary "penalty' for zero [tolerance] is the same as that for secondary students, and that is why lots of school personnel avoid elementary ALBA placement." According to 2002-03 year-end numbers, elementary students accounted for a little more than 10 percent of ALBA's total enrollment.
"Maybe zero tolerance is a policy we don't want to pursue for certain age groups," said Dalal in response to de Beck's point. "There is resistance from the school sites once a kid commits a zero-tolerance offense.... [Many times] it's kids who get caught, kids who've made a stupid choice, and sometimes that's all it is and it doesn't paint the full picture of the child."