School Flight Part 3: Families return to neighborhood schools

Last of three parts.

COSTA MESA — Jill Fales remembers moving to Mesa Verde three years ago and hearing neighborhood parents recite stereotypes in an effort to dissuade her from enrolling her son in the elementary school down the street.

Adams Elementary educated too many immigrant children from the city's Westside, they warned. Not enough of them spoke English at home. Classrooms were not competitive for upper-middle class children. So in heeding the advice, the mother of four filled out transfer paperwork to enroll her son at nearby Hawes Elementary, a public school in Huntington Beach. Her other three kids were already enrolled at private schools.

Then she heard there was a new principal at Adams. She met with Gabe Del Real, who spent hours explaining the 460-student campus' innovative programs, his vision and his teachers' abilities. She decided to dismiss the warnings and enroll her son Wyatt in the neighborhood school.

"I can honestly say, I am overwhelmed with shame. Shame on me for letting other people tell me, 'Don't send your child to Adams,'" Fales, a 40-year-old writer, told a group of parents at an Adams community forum earlier this year. "Wyatt is thriving. He is happy."

While her conversion is still the exception, a few Mesa Verde families have been breaking the trend and transferring in, not out, of the neighborhood schools.

They are lured by sports opportunities, relief from private-school tuition and zealous principals whose efforts are slowly changing perceptions.

"If it's things we can address, we should try. If it's ideological reasons, we're not going to be able to solve that," said Newport-Mesa Unified school board Trustee Katrina Foley, who recently asked the district to find out why parents are leaving and to devise a campaign to keep Mesa Verde kids enrolled locally.

The economy could be driving some of the changes. Newport-Mesa Unified spokeswoman Laura Boss said many students who were attending private schools chose Newport-Mesa during the economic downturn. About 500 Newport-Mesa residents who were attending outside of the district enrolled here during the 2009-10 school year.


Where business strategy meets education

Marketing plays a role. Some principals have employed strategies that might have come from a public relations playbook. Kirk Bauermeister, the Estancia High School principal, and his predecessor, Phil D'Agostino, came from the business world before entering education, and have applied sales principles at Estancia and TeWinkle Intermediate School.

"(At Estancia) you get the opportunity to experience different ideas and different backgrounds and different perspectives that you're going to end up dealing with," said D'Agostino, a former restaurant manager.

Bauermeister, who has a full goatee, mustache and often wears mismatched tie-shirt combinations, is disarming and relentless at the same time. Before teaching, he owned a popular independent sporting goods shop.

Now, he conducts surveys to find out what parents and students think about his school.

"The schools today really have to court the parents a little more," said Vicki Snell, whose children attended Adams, TeWinkle and Estancia.

To compete with private schools with slick websites and robust marketing budgets, Estancia boosters produced a video with testimonials from seniors bound for the Ivy League and other top universities.

Perhaps their biggest challenge is to overcome negative preconceptions. While often outdated or exaggerated, TeWinkle's reputation for violence and classroom disruptions was deserved, most say, until Bauermeister cracked down at the 735-student campus a few years ago.

In his time running the middle school on California Street, he gained a reputation as a no-nonsense principal who wouldn't tolerate fights or other disruptions. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of expulsions and suspensions from drugs or violence at TeWinkle dropped by half, from 167 the year before Bauermeister arrived to 82 (it has since risen).

He credits a strict dress code, prohibiting loitering in the halls and other measures.

"When you are really hard on the little things, the big things never happen," he said.

Both Bauermeister and D'Agostino met in parents' living rooms, explaining how they have changed the campuses and how they offer a promising path through middle and high school.

"We put a face to our schools," said D'Agostino, who moved to Costa Mesa High School last year.

That helps slowly break preconceptions, experts and administrators say.

"Your goal is to be sure that everyone in the community has a clear, honest understanding of what is and what isn't," said school board Trustee Judy Franco, who voted in 1995 to exclude some of the Westside Costa Mesa families from Adams' attendance boundaries.

Most parents are excited to learn that Adams has a new principal. Del Real, 34, set about improving the school and trumpeting its strengths. In his first year at Adams, Del Real revamped the school's computer lab and recategorized its library books so they're more accessible to students at all reading levels.

In March, Del Real, who dresses professionally in crisp suits and designer eyeglasses, walked door-to-door handing out fliers for a "community information night" designed to convince reluctant Mesa Verde parents that Adams offers a challenging and robust curriculum.

One Mesa Verde father who came to the meeting, Richard Juge, was considering enrolling his toddler in Adams when kindergarten arrives.

"It's disheartening," he said of the flight from neighborhood schools. "We're trying to find a solid reason to come."


School flight solutions, obstacles

The principals aren't convincing enough for many families to attend neighborhood schools, said Foley, who has called for a broader campaign to retain students.

Newport-Mesa needs "something catchy," suggested school board Trustee Dana Black. She pointed to the popularity of Davis Magnet School, a new campus on Arlington Drive next to Costa Mesa High.

"This often works to draw parents back," Barbara and Ken Tye, emeriti education professors at Chapman University, wrote in an email, "but it takes planning and has to be well-done and sustainable."

Akin to a magnet, dual-immersion language schools offer something unorthodox — in this case, the chance to learn both Spanish and English.

At Adams Elementary, a dual-immersion program could combine Westside students' Spanish proficiencies and the Mesa Verde students' English to everyone's benefit, said UCLA professor Patricia Gandara, a co-director of the university's Civil Rights Project.

"This is the ideal kind of place to mount a dual-language program," she said, adding that parents would have to sign waivers to bypass state restrictions on bilingual education.

Another strategy underway is to raise the schools' state Academic Performance Index (API) scores above 800, according to principals. The API is measured on a 1,000-point scale.

This year, TeWinkle scored 775 and Estancia 746, while their respective counterparts in Huntington Beach scored 882 and 864.

As they discussed reasons families leave the district, some school board trustees appeared discouraged by the long-standing conflict and resigned to the parents' preferences.

"We can market the school, we can explain all the things that are good, but the bottom line is that the parents have that choice," Franco said.

Some parents have "philosophical" or "ideological" reasons for leaving that could be insurmountable, the trustees explained. Those averse to Spanish speakers in the classroom, the trustees said, couldn't be helped because they generally advocate for changing school boundaries to exclude the Westside's Latino neighborhoods — which is likely against federal law.

In turn, "We have a little white flight," said Black.

Newport-Mesa Unified deputy superintendent Paul Reed said that school choice is a fact of life and can be healthy for a given community. He disputed there was a problem at the schools around Mesa Verde and said advocates for neighborhood campuses were off-base — especially those who say socioeconomic integration should be a goal.

"So we should socially engineer the school enrollments to be sure there is balance in every school? That sounds like desegregation to me," Reed said. "I thought we had come past that."

Not quite, say professors at UCLA's Civil Rights Project. They have documented a nationwide trend of "resegregation," with white families leaving increasingly Latino suburban schools, said Gary Orfield, professor of education and project co-director.

Orfield says districts should address the issue directly; he has even produced a manual for educators titled "Integrating Suburban Schools."



Eagles soar again


Even without such a coordinated effort, a few families who left the neighborhood elementary and middle schools have returned to Estancia High, which serves the neighborhood.

The Eagles' resurgent football team has lured student-athletes seeking more playing time than they'd get at top athletic schools, and parents are generally more comfortable with English at the high-school level.

Children of immigrants have a better grasp of the language by then, experts say, and high-performing students have more separate classes to insulate them from English learners, thus easing parents' concerns.

And when compared with Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and Sage Hill School in Newport Coast, parents argue that Estancia is smaller, more diverse or, when referring to private schools, less expensive.

"At the end of the day, a small school like Estancia gives your son or daughter the ability … to stand out to the college-entrance people," said Costa Mesa Councilman Steve Mensinger.

Mensinger's son Cole chose Estancia over Mater Dei, where he was expected to attend after completing eighth grade at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Costa Mesa. A defensive free safety, Cole had a better chance of starting at Estancia, which is on the small side with 1,310 students, so he decided to become an Eagle.

Mensinger said his son finds his friendships rewarding. By tutoring Latino friends who are still learning English, the 17-year-old helps himself master the material.

"Some of those kids give Cole the ability to be better than he normally would be," Mensinger said.

Like Fales and other parents, Mensinger has become evangelical about neighborhood schools. He raises money for the football team, gushes about Estancia's principal and says other parents should get involved, too.

"The condition of the schools is not necessarily only the responsibility of the administrators and the teachers," he said. "It's the responsibility of the community."

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