K. Mennem 7:17 p.m., June 17
My cell phone makes a faint sound and I fumble for it. Perplexed, I summon up a text message, momentarily tuning out the buzz of Spanish conversations around me. "Welcome to Mexico," Verizon tells me. "Dial 001 & 10 Digit Number to call US. Local Calls dial the Number." (sic)
I'm surrounded by a sea of brown faces, and my sons – one fair skinned and freckled, the other with a cascade of blond curls and striking blue eyes – are obliviously conspicuous amidst their dark-eyed counterparts. But the thing is, I'm not in Mexico. I'm seventeen miles from Tijuana in the auditorium of Sherman Elementary School on a balmy evening waiting for an assembly to begin.
My phone is experiencing a peculiar glitch, but I understand how it could be confused. Sherman Heights – which is cozily circumscribed by the neighborhoods of East Village, Golden Hill, Grant Hill and Logan Heights – is predominantly Latino, and nearly 95% of the school's students are Mexican-American. The majority are classified as English language learners, meaning they speak Spanish at home.
When I originally selected a school for my oldest son a few years ago, a family friend who was a former teacher gave me a talking to. “None of my colleagues would have ever considered teaching south of the eight,” he informed me, referring to the stretch of highway that separates what he considered San Diego’s “good” schools from what he presumed were academic cesspits.
I met with the new principal of Sherman, and he described the school’s dual language immersion program. Students spend half a day being taught in English and half a day in Spanish. From my own research, I discovered that there are significant cognitive and academic benefits for students who receive this model of instruction. Not only that, the school was reopening after a major reconstruction, and the facility was brand spanking new.
My boys, who don't live in Sherman Heights, attend Sherman Elementary through the school district's Open Enrollment Choice Program, which allows students to apply to schools outside of their neighborhood. There aren't a lot of families vying to choice into Sherman, and I suspect a lot of parents who live in the nearby downtown condos don’t even bother to check it out before they apply elsewhere. So they don’t see the attractive campus, or meet the talented and dedicated teaching staff or learn that the school's test scores are steadily climbing upward.
Sherman's Academic Performance Index (API), a score based on the students' statewide testing results, has been historically abysmal, putting the school on the state Board of Education's 1,000 lowest performing schools. The Open Enrollment Act, a law passed in January of last year, requires the San Diego Unified School District to send the school's families a letter annually, offering us the opportunity to transfer our kids to another school. I chuck it into my recycling bin.
It doesn't help that nearly 99% of the student body is so poor that it qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. And 15% of the students are considered transient. These kids do not have a stable address and may attend more than one school in an academic year. Many students are being raised by single parents or grandparents. In one teacher’s second grade classroom, when the class discussed Día de las Muertos, five of the students reported that one of their parents was dead.
To save myself one hour of morning and afternoon commute time, I could put the boys into one of the top-performing schools in Tierrasanta, where we live. Or we could apply to send them to one of the area's many boutiquey magnet schools.
But I'm loyal to Sherman Elementary School and drawn on a visceral level to the neighborhood, which is both gritty and charming, and full of vitality and stately Victorian houses that remind me of the New England town that was my stomping grounds for so many years. I love the independent businesses like Urban Chicken that have found a home in the community. I love how Sherman Heights exudes history while it nurtures a new wave of newcomers.
It’s hard to imagine, but present-day Sherman Heights started as a 160-acre spread with a magnificent view of the San Diego Bay. The land was acquired by Massachusetts native Matthew Sherman, an Army captain who was stationed in San Diego during the Civil War and then served as the city's mayor from 1891 to 1892. He bought the land for fifty cents an acre in 1867, a month after Alonzo Horton acquired the adjacent land that would become downtown San Diego. At the time, there were fewer than two dozen residents of "New Town" San Diego. According to the San Diego History Center website, "Sherman was regarded by some as 'a crazy darned fool' because he wanted to sink a well, put up a windmill, and raise vegetables on his land."
Captain Sherman and his wife donated land and money for the first Sherman Elementary School, built in 1870. The first year, there were fewer than a dozen students. The original school’s iconic bell was donated in 1900 and continues as a prominent visual feature, two buildings later.
In the latest incarnation of Sherman Elementary School, the designers left a huge vacant lot on the edge of campus, a place where one day the school facility will expand with another classroom building. But for now I see a more immediate possibility – an organic school garden that will serve as an outdoor classroom and student workspace. It’s a pet project I’ve been nurturing for two years.
Recently, a San Diego-based nonprofit group called Rebuild Global recruited an acclaimed local architect to create a beautiful design for an outdoor classroom and an aesthetic assortment of garden elements. In these times of austerity, it will take quite a bit of doing to raise the funds to fully build out the green schoolyard. But, I’m not the first kooky Yankee who wants to plant vegetables in Sherman Heights. And, hopefully, I won't be the last.