The 49-year-old Colina Park Golf Course along 52nd Street in City Heights, all 18 holes of it, sits across the street from San Diego's most densely populated neighborhood, dubbed Colina del Sol because of the nearby park of the same name. The golf course, though home to a burgeoning junior's program, seems an anomaly, sitting adjacent to a spot where the San Diego Unified School District has practically had to use a crowbar to squeeze in a desperately needed elementary school.
Proposition MM, the $1.5 billion bond measure approved by voters five years ago, promised that worn-down city schools would get a face lift and areas where campus size can't accommodate the under-18 population would get new schools-in all, 16 new campuses will have been built by the end of 2007.
As proposed, Colina del Sol will open with 146 students per acre (700/4.8). If enrollment jumps to 900 as projected, the school will cram in 188 students per acre.
* To arrive at this number, September 2002 enrollment was divided by a school's net usable acreage. Enrollment numbers and school site data was provided by SDCS.
For the past four years, up until last Tuesday, the Colina del Sol school existed only on a map, and even then nothing was certain. Environmental and topographical problems prompted time-consuming studies of four potential sites. So, though the school was among five new facilities promised to the mid-city area in spring of 1999, and though environmental impact studies began only a few months after that initial meeting, the Colina del Sol school will be one of the last Prop. MM schools built, slated to open fall of 2006, three years after its original target date.
In the four years since its inception, property values have skyrocketed, adding an estimated $15 million to the cost of the new school.
Last week, the district's Board of Education voted 4 to 1 to approve a 4.8-acre site situated in an upper half of the Colina del Sol neighborhood, currently occupied by four single-family homes and 151 apartments. Building new schools in urban areas means residential displacement, but the district's relocation package appears equitable: homes are purchased by the district for “fair-market value” and renters who are unable to find something in a similar price range are paid the difference in rent for 42 months. In addition, the district pays all relocation expenses.
Michael Sprague, chair of the City Heights Planning Committee said that, for the most part, the community supports the project. “This community fought for these schools very, very hard,” he said, “and everyone knows [residential displacement] is going to be somewhat painful, but it's for the future of our kids.”
What's at issue, then, is the size of the new school's site-almost half the eight acres the community had hoped for. The community's first choice, Sprague said, was a piece of land (Site 1 on the map) that was found to contain a trace fault line-a shift in the earth resulting from a larger fault line nearby-and potential, though unconfirmed, soil contamination. Also, the site is too close to University Avenue for many people's liking. The district's “preferred” site (Site P) is safely away from those problems but lies on a steep incline that renders the land almost unbuildable. An alternative (Site 2) was deemed a poor choice after district demographers estimated that 500 of the new school's students would have to cross University Avenue each day and still another alternative (Site 3) was dismissed-perhaps too quickly, board member John de Beck argued last Tuesday-because of, as a report to the board stated, its proximity to Site 1. A fifth site (Site A) was carved out of Site P and deemed superior since the smaller site avoided Site P's steep inclines and would displace the least number of residents.
Trustees, tasked with selecting the school site, were given information pertaining to Sites P, A and 2 only, the district recommending that A would be the best choice.
On a walk around the Colina del Sol area last week, Sprague said he was disappointed with the board's decision. The community had wanted four eight-acre school sites. What they got were four new schools, only one of them on eight acres.
“Would district staff ever have proposed a 4.8-acre site for 900 students in an affluent portion of the city?” he posed, referring to the new school's maximum capacity. “No. They never would have walked into the boardroom with it.”
The school district already estimates that the Colina del Sol will open with 700 students and could easily jump to 900. The school site would be the 20th smallest of the district's 187 schools. And, the first day it opens its doors to new students, Colina del Sol would already be among the district's most crowded schools, with 146 kids per acre of campus space. Neither would the campus fit a play field for the kids. Instead, P.E. would have be held at Colina del Sol Park across the street, a narrow park that begins with a steep upward slope, has 15 to 20 yards of flat space and then sharply dips back down.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of the park, Sprague was astonished the district would consider it sufficient for elementary school use. “There's nothing here to use,” he said. “Once you put in the [required] fence, plus the setback”-not to mention issues with errant golf balls from the course next door, he added. “It has to be usable green space in order for this to happen.”
District officials say they're certain the city will allow joint use of the park, and that's largely what compelled the board to approve Site A. However, April Penera, deputy director of city Parks and Recreation said there's been some discussion of joint use of the park, but no official decision has been made. The final decision would be up to the City Council, she said.
Although the board approved the 4.8-acre site, they asked Lou Smith, who heads up Prop. MM projects, to look at enlarging the site and report back in July.
Research says an ideal elementary school should have somewhere between 500 and 700 kids, and that campus size should equal 100 kids or fewer per acre-so, for example, a school with 500 students should ideally lie on a site five acres or larger. Jackson, Marshall and Euclid elementary schools, which currently serve the kids of Colina del Sol, pack in 165, 160 and 117 students per acre, respectively, for a total of 2,800 kindergartners through fifth graders spread out over an area not more than 20 blocks east to west and eight blocks north to south. It's the highest concentration of school-age children in the city.
The Camino del Sol area largely comprises legal immigrants from Sudan and Somalia, Sprague said. Additionally, 40 percent of the population is younger than 18-it's not a neighborhood of voters, he noted, and therefore a population lacking a strong political voice.
Sprague, who's lived in City Heights for more than 40 years and was involved in school site planning since Prop. MM's predecessor, Prop. O, believes that district staff could tweak plans to come up with a seven-acre site within Sites 1 and 3. All they'd need to do, Sprague said, is avoid the environmentally questionable areas that sit mostly at the southwest corner of Site 1. But, he added, at this stage in Prop. MM-one-third of the $1.5 billion has already been spent-the money necessary for a larger project might not be there. The cost to build the school on Site A currently stands at around $43 million. Expanding the site could add another $15 million.
The district's Smith says that while cost isn't the main concern when it comes to building a school, it can't be overlooked. Smith also cites the city's current affordable housing crisis as something that guides the district's decision making. It's a give and take, he said, and part of that requires looking at the number of residents a new school might displace.
“It's all about trade-offs,” he said, “... between the amount of land you have for a school and the amount of people you're going to displace.”
Smith said his staff plans to look into the board's request and see if it's possible to enlarge the site, but, he added, “the hardest part about building neighborhood schools is building schools in neighborhoods.”
Does size matter?
Research shows that the ideal size for an elementary school campus is 100 students or fewer per acre. Nationwide, test scores overwhelmingly prove that overcrowding leads to underachievement. Below are San Diego City Schools' five most overcrowded schools and five most “undercrowded” schools. Also included is the percentage of students who scored at or above grade level on the SAT-9 reading-assessment test.
School/location No. of students Percentage of students per acre* reading at/above grade level
Central (City Heights) 204 34.9
Edison (City Heights) 193 31.4
Hamilton (City Heights) 180 33.2
Jackson (City Heights) 165 20.5
Euclid (City Heights) 160 25.3
Cadman (Clairemont) 30 62.7
Crown Point (Pacific Beach) 32 42.6
Rolando Park (Rolando) 33 51.9
Sequoia (N. Clairemont) 35 75.2
Cubberly (Serra Mesa) 36 42.6