Students play and talk on the playground at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan on April 7, 2023. (Kristian Carreon for inewsource)

Next school year, San Diego Unified schools with large populations of low-income students will receive a boost in federal money aimed at improving academic achievement. 

But one district leader says the additional influx of what’s known as Title I funding still isn’t enough. 

“The amount of money overall that’s allocated from Title I will not even come close to meeting the needs that the (schools) will identify,” said Richard Barrera, a longtime San Diego Unified board member. 

Why this matters

Federal Title I funds are meant to help struggling students at low-income schools meet state standards, but leaders say the money is falling short of children’s needs.

More than 130 of the district’s roughly 180 schools will receive some of the $8 million, added on to San Diego Unified’s $19.5 million Title I base allocation. Most campuses receiving the money are south of Interstate 8, where some of the district’s highest-poverty schools are located. 

Hoover, San Diego and Lincoln high schools will receive the most supplemental funding — $303,000, $240,000, and $230,000, respectively. At the lowest end, Alba Community Day School — which serves 20 students who came from elsewhere in the district after facing disciplinary issues — will receive about $5,000. 

The amount schools receive is based on various factors, including the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a poverty indicator; the academic performance of African American students; students’ housing security; and whether they are English learners. 

The boost in funding is just a fraction of the district’s $1.8 billion annual budget, but critically important to efforts to help struggling students, some San Diego educators say. The money can be used to pay for instructional staff, supplemental curriculum, behavior supports such as counselors, attendance programs and community engagement if it has been proven to help with student achievement. 

San Diego Unified will also receive $400,000 in federal money for programs encouraging parent involvement. 

Barrera said the program has long been underfunded and should be increased if the federal government wants it to play a “serious” role in meeting the needs of low-income students. Despite its shortfall, he said the funds can enable principals to help students by creating interventions or hiring additional staff. 

Fernando Hernandez, principal at Perkins K-8 in San Diego’s Barrio Logan community, called the funding “essential.” He said Title I funds are especially important at Perkins because it’s the largest pot of money in the school’s control. 

Principal Fernando Hernandez is shown in his office at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan on April 7, 2023. (Kristian Carreon for inewsource)

Last year Perkins received $85,000 in supplemental funding. This year, school officials expect around $75,000, funding that Hernandez will use to hire a project resource teacher and a part-time elementary teacher. 

But on his wish list are teacher aides, or paraeducators, he said.

Hiring more teacher aides is especially important at Perkins, where the rate of students who have an individualized educational plan — a plan that lays out additional supports a student needs — is higher than the state average. About 22% of its students have an IEP, compared to 13% statewide. 

The need for special education may extend beyond students who’ve been identified for services, Hernandez said, as some children at Perkins previously attended multiple schools and haven’t stayed long enough to be assessed.

The entrance to the main office at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan is shown on April 7, 2023. (Kristian Carreon for inewsource)

“It’s obvious they need additional support, but there is no IEP that justifies an additional expenditure from the central office,” he said.

A failed bill

Some California education advocates had pushed for even more money for struggling students, but state legislation that would have provided the additional funding never came to fruition. 

Under a bill introduced last year by Assemblymember Akilah Weber, school districts would receive additional money for their lowest-performing students. In San Diego Unified and statewide, those students have historically been African American. 

San Diego Unified schools could have received an additional $11.5 million, according to estimates from the Black in School Coalition, an organization in support of the proposal. 

But the bill died when Weber, a La Mesa Democrat, pulled it from consideration after some questioned whether it would face legal challenges on grounds of giving some students preferential treatment. Supporters of the bill have pushed back, saying the bill made no mention of race and the state superintendent of public instruction would have annually identified the lowest-performing student group. 

“There’s a built-in mechanism for accountability that would have compelled more to be done than what is currently existing for them today,” Christina Laster, western regional education director for the civil rights group National Action Network, said of what Weber’s bill would have meant for African American students. 

Funds also would have been targeted toward the neediest students instead of sometimes failing to reach them — as is the case with local funding or Title I dollars now, Laster added. 

Janeth Fernandez guides kindergarten students at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan on April 7, 2023. (Kristian Carreon for inewsource)

Gov. Gavin Newsom also pledged to address school equity challenges in the state budget, proposing a $300 million “equity multiplier.” Weber, who did not respond to inewsource’s request for comment, pledged support for the governor’s proposal this month. 

Barrera, the San Diego Unified board member, said the funding formula — not “categorical programs” aimed at driving dollars to specific students — is the best way to increase support for schools. 

“Giving local districts more flexibility about how to help meet the needs of kids in poverty is a much better approach than creating these new initiatives that in the end will not have much impact … because it’s very inefficient,” Barrera said. 

Funds, enrollment dwindle

As student enrollment declines at Perkins, a trend many public schools are facing, so do financial resources. 

Hernandez said that makes it harder to close achievement gaps especially at schools where students face greater needs — including Perkins, where many students are victims of adverse childhood experiences and could benefit from additional support.

Adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACES, are traumatic experiences that prevent a student from learning and can negatively impact their health. Those experiences can include being homeless, living with people addicted to drugs, witnessing domestic violence and more. 

At Perkins, the student homeless population has grown from 3% in 2014 to about 29% this year, Hernandez said. School officials also discovered students flagged for low academic progress typically had scored high on a test measuring adverse childhood experiences. 

Hernandez said he noticed a shift when the student homeless population hit 40% in 2019. 

“We couldn’t teach anymore because our students were coming with so many emotional needs and trauma that we were not prepared to address,” he said. 

Students attend class in a Perkins K-8 school’s Action Based Learning Lab in Barrio Logan, April 14, 2023. The class combines physical movement with academic activities. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

As a result, Perkins hired a resource teacher tasked with addressing student’s social and emotional issues through an Action Based Learning Lab, which combines physical movement with academic activities. 

The program, meant to help students self-regulate, reduced the number of middle schoolers referred to the principal’s office by 70% this year, Hernandez said. 

But a drop in Title I funding next school year could bring an end to that position and program. 

“The money that they gave us is not enough,” he said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...