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Newport-Mesa Unified vows to bring more electives, equity to TeWinkle Middle School

Parents expressed their preferences for elective courses that could be offered at TeWinkle Middle School in a forum Tuesday.
Parents expressed their preferences for possible new elective courses that could be offered at TeWinkle Middle School in a forum Tuesday.
(Sara Cardine)

A community forum Tuesday about providing more elective courses for students at Costa Mesa’s TeWinkle Middle School quickly evolved into a discussion about equity, demographics and declining enrollment that ended with Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials promising to do more.

Parents convened with educators in a brainstorming session on how the bring the campus, which currently offers 13 electives, up to speed with other middle schools in the district that offer many more choices outside the required curriculum.

Corona del Mar Middle School in Newport Beach, for example, lets kids pick from among 21 electives, while Costa Mesa Middle offers 27. While other campuses offer Spanish, Mandarin and French programs, TeWinkle offers no second languages.

“Tonight is really based on having conversations and getting your feedback,” said Kerrie Torres, NMUSD’s assistant superintendent of secondary education, as she addressed a crowd of more than 60 people in the school’s auditorium.

Parents and school officials grappled in a forum Tuesday over the scarcity of elective courses at TeWinkle Middle School.
Parents and school officials grappled in a forum Tuesday over the scarcity of elective courses at TeWinkle Middle School.
(Sara Cardine)

Torres led an exercise in which groups scribbled down classes they’d like to see offered on sticky notes and placed them on poster boards hanging on the walls. They were later given four stickers each and asked to indicate their favorites.

Options like wood shop, yoga, music and art quickly amassed sticker dots. Torres explained the district would compile a spreadsheet ranking the options and disseminate it among school families ahead of a parent survey and, later, a student survey.

But in a discussion led primarily by parents of elementary school students slated to attend TeWinkle, speakers sought to understand the underpinnings of observed inequities.

“We’re looking for parity among the middle schools for students here at TeWinkle,” said mom Laura Van de Merghel, who pointed out 74.6% of TeWinkle students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to 10.8% at Corona del Mar.

Parent Laura Van de Merghel participates Tuesday at a TeWinkle Middle School forum.
Parent Laura Van de Merghel presents ideas for new elective courses brainstormed in a small group Tuesday at a TeWinkle Middle School forum.
(Sara Cardine)

“[Even though] we’re the Costa Mesa ZIP code in the Newport-Mesa, we want our kids to have the same access to the Newport stuff.”

Kari Nieblas Vozenilek shared data she requested from the district on families requesting transfers from TeWinkle to other schools. The district recorded 100 requests in 2021-22, compared to only 30 in 2010-11. Transfers from TeWinkle were 2.75 times higher than those recorded at Newport Beach’s Ensign Intermediate.

“They’re leaving to go to other Newport-Mesa middle schools,” she said. “I’m asking the district to do some of the work to figure out why there are so many kids leaving.”

Victoria Elementary School father Robert Dickson, who attended Corona del Mar Middle, said the scarcity of elective courses may be part of the problem.

“When there’s a list of what you want your kids to have, the options, I simply wrote down ‘every single one that’s offered elsewhere,’” he said, eliciting an “Amen!” from one attendee.

Outside TeWinkle School.
Newport-Mesa Unified recorded 100 requests for transfers out of TeWinkle in 2021-22, compared to 30 in 2010-11.
(Sara Cardine)

“When I was talking about this to other parents who go to other schools, they said simply, ‘Just send your kids somewhere else,’” Dickson continued. “I don’t want to do that. I want my kids to go to school with kids they’ve been going to school with their whole lives.”

Parents shared stories of real estate agents steering clients away from what would be their schools of residence and entire neighborhoods where families transfer out without ever visiting the schools in their area.

“You need to get these parents now,” mom Christa Fletcher said of new families. “Their minds are changing now.”

Attendees considered kickstarting a marketing and awareness campaign alongside changing the school day to allow TeWinkle students more than one elective course or rotating electives between semesters for more course sampling.

Tuesday’s forum was one of the first of a series of school-site meetings planned by the district, which recently adopted a strategic goal of deeper engagement with the school community. Similar middle school electives discussions are scheduled at Ensign Intermediate on Feb. 28 and in March at Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa middle schools.

Supt. Wesley Smith personally promised to work in the coming year to earn parents’ trust and respect. Torres vowed the meeting would be the beginning of a reckoning.

“There are issues at all levels,” she said. “[And] we are interested in doing more for TeWinkle — that’s why we’re talking tonight. I hope you have confidence we will do that work and that this is our first step in that process.”

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