First of three parts.
COSTA MESA — As he tours Mesa Verde with prospective home buyers, Realtor Larry Weichman boasts of the neighborhood country club's heated swimming pool and acclaimed golf pro.
But when clients ask about the public schools, Weichman becomes more circumspect.
The chairman of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce pulled his son out of the neighborhood elementary school and sent him instead to the nearby Huntington Beach City School District.
"It's sad," said Weichman, who lives two doors from Adams Elementary School.
Like other families on his block, he and his son leave Mesa Verde's lush, ribbon-like streets and take a six-lane arterial road across the Santa Ana River to go to school.
From a distance, it seems counterintuitive, as most believe that nice neighborhoods also have great schools.
But many Mesa Verde families say their campuses don't make the grade. They cite low test scores, listen to neighbors' often outdated stories of gang violence, and then flee the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for private schools — or public schools in neighboring districts.
Their flight illustrates a larger trend in suburbs across the country, experts say. As immigrants continue to move into historically white communities, the established families are choosing to leave their neighborhood campuses. Nationally recognized academics, as well those familiar with Mesa Verde's situation, say this choice can divide a community and separate children along socioeconomic lines.
"People have bought into the idea that having choice in education is a good idea, and your neighborhood school is not necessarily where you'd want to send your kid," said Ken Tye, professor emeritus and former head of Chapman University's education program. "You see what damage it does to the idea of 'the public school as the place where people come together and learn to be together.' "
Mesa Verde families have departed their community schools for more than 15 years, beginning around when theU.S. Department of Educationdirected Adams Elementary — in the middle of Mesa Verde on Club House Road — to enroll students from Costa Mesa's largely blue-collar Westside. Entrenched families, many of them white, at the time resisted sending their children to school with Latino immigrants, so they fled.
Although flight persists today, other factors seem to inform Mesa Verde families' decisions to leave: easy access to test scores, chatter across backyard fences, and the desire to send kids to school with their friends. That said, plenty of families, influenced by modern attitudes about class, race and community building, are beginning to return to neighborhood schools — and are impressed with what they've found.
A seemingly idyllic place to attend school
Up the curved road north of Adams Avenue is the Mesa Verde Country Club, flanked on the west by the Santa Ana River. The south side of the neighborhood is bounded by Fairview Park, with 17 acres of wetlands and restored riparian habitat. Streets named after birds — Swan, Oriole and Albatross drives — hug the hamlet's undulating hills. Mesa Verde is unlike Costa Mesa's many flat (Mesa, after all, means table in Spanish) and grid-based neighborhoods.
Across the river, the Huntington Beach public schools welcome Costa Mesa children, as each new pupil brings in additional government funding. Roughly 500 students who live in Newport-Mesa Unified's boundaries attend Huntington Beach public schools. No other city comes close to drawing as many Newport-Mesa students.
Another 518 current students left Mesa Verde schools for other campuses within the Newport-Mesa district, including those in Eastside Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. Adams Elementary has 460 students.
Whether outside schools are "better" is subjective, because plenty of parents who send their kids to their Mesa Verde-area schools say their children are excelling. But the perception of higher quality in Huntington Beach has been sending families westbound on Adams Avenue, in search of good schools, for years.
"It's what's said over the backyard fence, what's said at the barbecue, about where you should send your kids to school," said Paul Reed, deputy superintendent at Newport-Mesa. "And that kind of stuff is very difficult to change."
Other districts are dealing with the same issue. An analysis by UCLA's Civil Rights Project found that nearly 30% of Latino suburban students attend schools with no more than 10% white students.
While some people attribute this flight to racism, most acknowledge that parents' motivations are more complex, and often confused. Discussions about students from low-income households usually touch on language and ethnicity, as race is closely correlated with poverty.
"It's very hard to peel apart the race piece and the poor piece," said Barbara Tye, wife of Ken Tye and a fellow professor emeritus at Chapman University in Orange.
Also the former head of the university's education program, she has researched Orange County schools for decades.
Barbara Tye and other researchers say students from low-income households benefit greatly — in academics and more intangible social skills — by attending school with middle- or upper-class students. And kids from neighborhoods like Mesa Verde can reap rewards — such as learning Spanish and expanding their worldview — from attending classes with working-class students.
For these reasons, and others, some Mesa Verde families have stayed. Adams' mothers have hosted coffee klatches and knocked on doors, trying to recruit parents and break preconceptions. Now, with the help of reform-minded principals and the economic recession, they and some Estancia parents have made small gains toward improving Mesa Verde's representation in neighborhood schools.
Some parents are choosing Adams over expensive private schools, and students who did their primary years elsewhere are returning to the district to attend Estancia High School, where test scores are on the rise and a resurgent football team lures student-athletes looking for playing time.
With 1,310 students, Estancia athletes have a better chance of starting on varsity than at some larger campuses.
If more Mesa Verde families decided to attend in the district, the parents could help improve the schools, many say. A few of those who remain at Adams have assumed leadership roles in the PTA, and one started a book club for students older than her own.
"Those families that are transferring are more likely to be more involved parents, because they're taking an extraordinary step," said Newport-Mesa school board Trustee Katrina Foley. "We're a stronger, closer-knit community when we have parents in local schools."
'Worse than picking college'
Adams, which sits next to a verdant neighborhood park, invites passersby with its neat lawn and virtually no fences. But many neighborhood parents haven't set foot inside its one-story, pale blue classroom buildings.
Fears that their children wouldn't reach their full academic or social potential have kept many of them away, even though most of the dozens of parents interviewed for this series believe that neighborhood kids attending neighborhood schools would make for a better community.
They say that competition — whether to get into top colleges or to keep up with the developing world — drives their decisions to leave Mesa Verde for school more than race or class issues. They want their children in classrooms with other students who will challenge them, they say.
"Everything's more competitive, including making sure that my child is No. 1: Not just good for himself or herself, but better than other people," said Ken Tye. "You're not educating kids for the present. You're educating kids for their future jobs."
This creates a classic dilemma, parents say, where they believe they must choose between the well-being of their own children and the well-being of the neighborhood school — even the community at large.
Easily accessible test scores play a major role in the decision-making. Parents look online at the state Academic Performance Index (API) scores, and see that Adams, TeWinkle Intermediate School and Estancia all score lower than their Huntington Beach counterparts and many of the other Newport-Mesa campuses.
"Picking kindergarten has to be worse than picking college," said Vicki Snell, Estancia PTA president and a former Adams mom who is a strong advocate for both public campuses. "[Parents] try to find these ways to evaluate a school instead of just going to the school to evaluate a classroom."
Because of its open-enrollment policy, Newport-Mesa Unified students can theoretically transfer to schools across the district in Newport Beach or on the Eastside of Costa Mesa, but they are often denied because the highest-ranking schools, such as Mariners Elementary in Newport Beach, are full.
So instead of going across town, families look outside of the district, particularly when they cannot or do not want to pay for private schools.
Over the past five years, the three Huntington Beach schools near Mesa Verde scored 11% to more than 20% higher than their Newport-Mesa counterparts. Hawes Elementary, Sowers Middle and Edison High School are all Huntington Beach schools within a short drive of the Costa Mesa neighborhood. Adams scored 765 out of 1,000 on the API in 2011, while Hawes scored 928.
But advocates for the neighborhood schools point out that when you break down the scores, there is room for students to excel. White students score higher than first-generation Latinos, they say. Advocates hope that fact can entice some white Mesa Verde parents hesitant to put their children in classes alongside immigrant children, some of whom are just learning English.
Test scores, though, aren't a very good indicator of a school's worth anyway, some experts say.
"That is not the only measure of quality that you want to look at," Barbara Tye said. Parents should visit a school and get a "feel, rather than seeing a score on a page," she said.
Adams and TeWinkle teachers are top-quality and can help any child excel, say parents with kids enrolled there already, adding that to focus on test scores is shortsighted.
"[Parents] don't stop to think about issues beyond the teachers' control," said Betsy Forbath, whose son is going to be a sixth-grader at Adams. "Many children are learning English as a second language, some are homeless, and others have parents who aren't accustomed to volunteering at school."
Will my child fit in?
Those are some of the reasons parents say they pull their children from Adams. They point to class and cultural differences that they worry — without cause, some suggest — can get in the way of friendships, especially in elementary and middle school.
"It's kind of hard for a child to have a relationship with someone living in a motel," said Weichman, the real estate broker who pulled his son out of Adams.
The school, next to $800,000-plus homes, has 26 homeless students out of 460. Some of the poorest children live in motels along Harbor Boulevard or in low-cost Westside apartments. Because of the transient nature of poverty, many families quickly move on, thus severing friendships with their departures.
"[My son] tried to become buddies with them, and six months later they were gone," Weichman continued. " ... It just was not a great social environment."
The kids who live on the Westside also see the differences, particularly when it comes to socializing after school.
Susan Sanchez, who finished sixth grade at Adams last year, is friendly with the kids from Mesa Verde, but those relationships end when the last bell rings.
While that may be a function of geography, her mother Carmen says parents from the Westside sense a distaste toward them from some Mesa Verde parents, especially when they disparage Adams.
"Maybe they're saying that because they don't want their kids around Hispanics," she said through a translator while sitting in her living room near a statuette of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
With kind eyes and a shy but inviting smile, Sanchez cares for the elderly as an in-home nurse assistant. Her husband casts fire hydrants in a nearby foundry. They immigrated about 25 years ago from Guadalajara, Mexico.
It can be hard to relate to the Westside families, say some Mesa Verde parents, including the ones who advocate for the neighborhood schools. They recall feeling like outsiders when attending birthday parties and quinceañeras.
"It's the parents that really have the problem," said Snell, who remembered a birthday party near Joann Street. "It was just a little uncomfortable. I had nobody to talk to."
Parents can stumble over class and cultural differences, but the students get along just fine at school, educators say.
"When I walk around and talk with kids, they're not figuring out who's from which part of the neighborhood," said Gabe Del Real, 34, the Adams principal. "They're just interested in making friends out there on the playground. That is just what they do."
Parents have praised Del Real, who is new to Adams, for reaching out to neighborhood families and for setting a tone that each student will be cared for individually. During a morning recess last spring, he called children by their nicknames.
Del Real helped one boy whose sneakers had come untied; the laces were threadbare and had slipped their knots. Nearby, children — some dressed stylishly, others not — swung alongside each other, seemingly unaware of the differences in clothing or skin color.
"I think that's part of parents' concern," Del Real said continued. "It's, 'Will my child fit in?', and the kids here fit in really well, no matter where they live."
It's hard to overlook the ethnic contrast between Adams, which is 70% Latino, and the Mesa Verde neighborhood, which is about 70% white, according to the 2010 Census. Undercurrents of race, class and ethnicity run throughout discussions about the schools, while sometimes people address them head-on.
"The Hispanic population doesn't put that much weight [on education]," said Martie O'Meara, a Mesa Verde resident and retired teacher who about five years ago led a group of homeowners trying to reform the neighborhood schools. "A percentage of them are just so busy trying to survive to emphasize education."
Poverty is more important than cultural background in determining parents' involvement, said Eunice Pimentel, a leader in Families and Schools Together (FAST), a Wisconsin-based global nonprofit whose local goals include teaching Westside parents how to be more involved in their children's schools.
"If they had the means to pay rent, they would help them with homework and extracurricular activities," she said.
Newport-Mesa Unified officials rejected O'Meara's reform proposals to transform Adams into a "fundamental" school with unusually strict discipline, a charter school, or a magnet school. After that, a group of families left the district.
Some of those parents talked with Kirk Bauermeister, then-principal at TeWinkle, which has 735 students in seventh and eighth grade. But he and others in Newport-Mesa Unified stood by their mission to educate all-comers.
Later, he said, "They'll ask the question, 'What percentage of Hispanics do you have?' And I'll look at them and I'll go, 'You know what, if that's your issue, then you do need to go someplace else.' "
A gentler time
When the Mesa Verde area blossomed in the 1960s, most kids attended the local public schools, except for those from families with a religious or private education preference.
Young families were pouring in with enough numbers to populate multiple elementary schools, including Adams. Children from the same block knew each other and played together.
"It just was a kinder, gentler way," said Cathy McDaniels, who attended Adams back then and raised her children in the same house in which she grew up. "It was just a small-town feel. You wouldn't have to make a play date … you had all your neighborhood kids that went to the same school."
But the McDaniels family was one of the first families to pull their kids from Adams in the early 1990s, when officials brought in students from other parts of town to fill desks. The district had shut down Adams in the 1980s because the neighborhood grew older and it had fewer school-aged children. Officials needed to expand its boundary to reopen.
The new boundary included a small residential area south of the Costa Mesa Golf Course, which became known as the Joann Street Rectangle — Carmen Sanchez's neighborhood today. About 200 students there were bused 2.25 miles north to Adams, and Mesa Verde parents complained it was no longer a neighborhood school.
The school board, against the advice of the school district's attorney, decided to redraw the boundaries to exclude the rectangle. The change made Adams a majority-white school. Federal law generally prohibits redrawing school boundaries when it would concentrate minority students, so theU.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in 1996 forced Newport-Mesa Unified to keep the Joann-area students at Adams.
"I went [to Adams]. It broke my heart to leave," McDaniels said. "But when half your class isn't speaking your language, it just slows your kids down … I didn't want my kid to be a guinea pig."
To be sure, teachers and administrators maintain that native English speakers aren't hindered at Adams or at other schools, especially today. Instruction is "differentiated," they say.
Advanced students, for example, are given assignments that challenge them, while those in need receive remedial help from teachers and aides.
"If you have a fifth-grade student reading at a high-school level, we support that here," Del Real, the Adams principal, told a group of parents during a community information night aimed at drawing Mesa Verde families back to Adams.
Pitting preconceptions against reality
Reading isn't parents' only concern. Over many years, Estancia and TeWinkle gained reputations among some Mesa Verde families as schools with gang problems. Students and parents heard of fights, students carrying knives and flaunting gang colors. As recently as 2005, Estancia had a truancy rate nearly twice the district average.
Parents still complain about seeing police cars in front of the campuses; as infrequently as that might happen, it reinforces their hesitations, they say.
But school officials insist violence and other disruptions have been addressed.
Still, one Mesa Verde family recently left. Tim Deutsch, the father of 15-year-old twins, said his kids transferred from TeWinkle to Sowers in Huntington Beach after one of them was bullied at TeWinkle.
"It wasn't truly a neighborhood school," said Tim.
Private schools offer answers to flight
Oftentimes parents looking for a calmer school environment enroll their kids in private schools, where teachers and administrators are typically stricter.
"They feel there is probably going to be a safer campus," said Father Norbert Wood, the rector at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Costa Mesa.
Of course, religion motivates some families to go outside the district. Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer sends his three kids to St. John.
"It's very important for myself and other parents who feel strongly about their Catholic faith to put their kids in Catholic schools," Righeimer said.
School choice benefits H.B., but Costa Mesa?
When faith in test scores lures families to Huntington Beach, they carry along substantial funding.
Students transferring into the Huntington Beach City School District bring with them more than $5,000 in state funding per student per year, and more than $6,000 for those who transfer to Edison High, according to the state Department of Education.
With more money and greater enrollment, Huntington schools are able to hire teachers, according to an administrator in the City School District. Hawes Elementary added four teachers for the 2005-06 school year; Adams lost five the same year, though it is hard to determine a cause-and-effect relationship.
Newport-Mesa Unified, by contrast, is a "basic aid" district that relies on its property tax base to fund education. Students from outside the district boundaries aren't allowed in, and Newport-Mesa doesn't lose money when its students choose to go outside of the district.
Because the Costa Mesa schools and families aren't losing funding, then what are they missing when students leave?
"There's nothing wrong with the idea that I want the best for my kid," said Ken Tye from Chapman University. "But it goes beyond that. We want to build a community, and our children should be part of the broader community, and the school is the place for that to take place."
Others, like Newport-Mesa deputy superintendent Paul Reed, disagree. They say school choice is a fact of life, and certainly not a problem for the district.
"The reality is that parents in any community make a variety of decisions to send their kids to school, and it may not be the school down the street," he said. "That's generally a healthy thing for a community. It's sort of a safety valve. If folks aren't happy with their local schools, for whatever reason, they as parents have lots of options."
Experts say that pulling students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds ultimately harms the lower-income students.
Students from middle- and upper-class families typically perform higher on standardized tests, so schools such as Adams score lower and have to use government funds to improve math and language proficiency. Adams qualifies for the federal Title I funding program, which is reserved for schools with the highest proportion of low-income students.
Experts argue that a broader curriculum is more important, especially if a student wants to climb society's class ladder. Public schools with wealthy families can better fund science, art, drama and music programs.
Mariners Elementary in Newport Beach, for instance, has a foundation that pays for a science lab and a full-time music teacher in fourth through sixth grades. Adams' music teacher comes three-and-a-half days per week. Mariners scored 946 on the 2010 API — one of the best scores in Orange County.
"The kids who are struggling to master English and trying to cope with schools are now faced with a narrow curriculum that is going to equip them — for what?" said Barbara Tye. "It's hard to convince people that they should care as much about the quality of education that their cleaning lady's daughter is getting, or their yardman's son is getting, as their own child is getting."
Advocates say students from low-income families lose out on social capital: the elusive mannerisms, speech patterns and connections that people in the higher socioeconomic strata unconsciously use.
"We're leaving them to failure. We're leaving them on their own," said Pimentel from FAST, the education nonprofit helping the Westside. "They won't have that model to look up to."
Inversely, integrating students from different socioeconomic classes has long-term advantages, such as increasing the chance students from low-income families will graduate and go to college, says UCLA professor of education Gary Orfield, who co-directs the university's Civil Rights Project.
"It's usually no loss for advantaged kids, and a gain for low-income or minority kids," he said.
Coming Tuesday: Though plenty of Mesa Verde families leave their neighborhood schools, plenty are staying put — and coming back — with good results. Also, a closer look at how sports, friends and home prices affect school choices.