School Flight Part 2: Not everyone chooses to leave neighborhood schools

Second of two parts.

COSTA MESA — Many nights she sipped tea and listened to other parents complain.

They questioned the academic rigor of Adams Elementary, the school just down the block. Some told rumors of Spanish speakers slowing down instruction, and students from the city's Westside interrupting teachers and classmates.

Her goal those nights was to sway them, to convince her neighbors that the place she sent her children to every day was safe and enriching. Many were already convinced, though, that Adams was a threat to their children's education.

Jennifer Knapp and a handful of other parents have kept their children at public schools that serve Costa Mesa's Mesa Verde neighborhood, despite many families fleeing to private schools and public schools in neighboring Huntington Beach. They remain, they say, because the teachers are talented, their children benefit from diverse classmates, and they believe in the concept of neighborhood schools.

"When you're a part of a school in your community, you're more tied in," said Knapp, who now advocates for Estancia High School, where her youngest attends. She imagines, with more Mesa Verde families going to community schools, "the stronger our neighborhood could be."

Many leave their neighborhood's Newport-Mesa Unified School District campuses — Adams, TeWinkle Intermediate School and Estancia High — because they believe students learning English will be a drag on their children who are already fluent. In defense, Adams educators say they have "differentiated education," for their 460 pupils; teachers simultaneously help the remedial students and challenge the advanced students.

The principal, 34-year-old Gabe Del Real, stresses that his teachers can push high-performers.

"Absolutely, we need to address their needs as much as any student who is performing below grade level, and that is something that we do," he said, his office wall lined with children's books ranging from"Where the Wild Things Are"to "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

But even some education professionals admit differentiation isn't always effective. They say some teachers lack training, and even the best trained find difficulty simultaneously pushing both advanced students and those still getting up to grade level.

"I think teachers can teach efficiently at both levels, but many teachers are not equipped to do that," said Eunice Pimentel, a team leader at Families and Schools Together (FAST), a Wisconsin-based global nonprofit that works locally with Westside parents. "While it can be done in a perfect world, it's not happening now."

Pimentel believes bilingual education, which is generally prohibited in California schools, is a better model.

Still, the holdout parents insist any student can excel at these schools.

"I have never had any doubts at all that they are getting the best education possible," said Julie Alighee, a PTA board member and a parent of an Adams student who spoke during a "community information night" designed to promote Adams to Mesa Verde parents.

She and other Mesa Verde mothers climbed the stage in Adams' multipurpose room and talked about how satisfied they were with the teachers and the school's offerings.

Dora Danesi, whose son Jackson will be starting sixth grade there, agrees.

"I do feel he is challenged," she said.

Jackson scored perfectly on a state standardized math test, she said, and he participates in programs designed for advanced students.

Another mother, Mella Hume, says her son Max excelled once his Adams teacher identified his reading strengths.

Max attended Christ Lutheran School in Costa Mesa before the family moved to Mesa Verde, but they decided to give Adams a shot when they met some satisfied parents in a youth soccer league. He had been struggling in reading at Christ Lutheran and the family had to pay more for tutoring, but as soon as he started at Adams his teacher realized his problem and Max outshined his past performance.

"Immediately, the teacher figured out he wasn't a fiction [book] kid," said Hume, whose children attend Adams, TeWinkle and Estancia.

Besides academics, some parents are drawn to the public schools serving Mesa Verde because they are socioeconomically and ethnically mixed, they say, and knowing people from other backgrounds can help later in life. Experts generally agree.

"All the children at integrated schools, from all backgrounds, learn to understand and work across ethnic lines," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education at UCLA and the co-director of university's Civil Rights Project.

At the elementary level, kids can form impressions based on experience instead of stereotypes.

"They didn't understand there was any difference between Marcos or Mark," said Knapp, the tea and coffee klatch mom whose children attended neighborhood schools all the way through Estancia.

Educators at the Mesa Verde-area schools embrace their mostly Latino and low-income demographics. About 80% of students at Adams and TeWinkle, and 70% at Estancia, rely on free or reduced-price meals.

"Diversity is our strength," said Del Real. "We live in a diverse society, and one of the best things kids can really do is have exposure to other kids from all walks of life and other experiences … Kids can gain a lot of understanding about the human condition."

And that exposure goes both directions, experts say. It expands middle-class students' experiences and helps the lower-income students in myriad ways.

New York University researchers found the best way to predict if an immigrant student would learn English rapidly, and learn it well, is if he or she has a close friend who primarily speaks English.

Georgetown University researchers discovered that a student's SAT scores are related to socioeconomic integration at school. A 38-point gap on the college entrance exam can be seen for students who attend a school where 90 percent of classmates are low-income, compared to a campus where no peers receive subsidized lunches.

Also, higher-income families bring money, parental time investment and other forms of capital that can elevate all students, experts say, partly because they may not be working as many jobs or hours to make ends meet.

"If they set an example to get involved in the schools, then the lower-income parents may follow," said Pimentel, the Westside parent advocate from FAST.

A common refrain heard on both sides of the debate — from the parents who take their kids elsewhere and the holdouts — is that people "do what they think is best for their children." Most Mesa Verde parents who attend Adams say they are sympathetic with their neighbors, but just don't agree.

"It's not only about your child," said Dora Danesi, who chairs an art masters program and the recycling program at Adams.

At a July Newport-Mesa Unified school board meeting, Trustee Katrina Foley put it this way:

"If all the upper-middle class families transfer to Huntington Beach … you don't have access to all those resources and all those connections. It does diminish the ability for those [remaining] kids to have opportunities … to have the same opportunities."

But even proponents of integration acknowledge that cross-cultural relationships can sometimes prove difficult.

Hume said her daughter is less social than some, and her classmates' different ZIP code and cultural background exacerbated that. At one point, Hume said she was open to transferring her to Davis Magnet School in Costa Mesa.

"She doesn't have a whole social group … and I felt bad for her," she said. "I fully support the school, but at the end of the day, I want my kid to be happy."

Many parents make the decision to go elsewhere without first trying Adams or the other Newport-Mesa schools. Since around the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Department of Educationrequired Adams to enroll students from the Westside, families from Mesa Verde families have been fleeing.

The holdouts say parents need to see the schools for themselves and not decide based on preconceptions and what others say.

"I think there is just the fear of the unknown," said Knapp, who was one of the original holdouts; the district re-drew its boundaries to include Westside students when her eldest was in kindergarten. "We fought pretty hard to get people to try it."

At living room chats, they would endure parents telling that they were sending their kids to terrible schools.

"There are times you feel it's insulting," Knapp said.

Meanwhile, the Westside parents are generally satisfied with Adams. Carmen Sanchez, whose daughter Susan finished sixth grade at Adams last year, said the teachers there are more devoted and caring than at Wilson Elementary, where Susan spent kindergarten.

"It's the better one because it's on the other side," Sanchez said.

Coming Wednesday: Some Mesa Verde families are returning to the neighborhood schools as principals employ business strategies to break preconceptions. Now, district officials are looking for ways to attract more children.

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