City Life: School board doesn't give a complete picture

Newport-Mesa Unified school board President David Brooks said at a Dec. 13 meeting that he doesn't want to hear criticism, but I feel it's hard to hold back being critical when the trustees continue to focus on the wrong issues.

At that meeting, Trustee Martha Fluor attempted to take undue credit for the current teacher compensation package, which the administration resisted before compromising with the teachers union, but Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard also had a disingenuous moment.

Hubbard crowed that our school district has a high school graduation rate of 94.8%.

At first glance, this is quite an achievement. But there is more to graduating high-schoolers than just handing them a diploma. These students should be prepared for the next steps in their lives, including mastery of the "A-G" courses required to gain admittance to California State University or University of California systems.

Sadly, many Newport-Mesa kids are not prepared by our district to attend a UC or CSU campus.

The A-G courses include history or social science, English, math, laboratory science, a foreign language, visual and performing arts, and college-prep electives.

What Hubbard did not state was that, unfortunately, at least half of the high-schoolers in our district don't have a prayer of getting into a UC. The seniors at Costa Mesa's two high schools fare far worse.

Now, one could argue that because the UC aims to recruit the top 9% of seniors in the state, that's OK — but I think we can do better, particularly in Costa Mesa.

According to the California Department of Education, the 2009-10 A-G course graduation rate of 82.7% at Corona del Mar High School is by far the highest in the district. Second is Newport Harbor High School with a 59.3% A-G graduation rate.

From there, the numbers tumble.

The A-G rates for Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools are 34.4% and 29.1%, respectively. Put another way, about two-thirds of the students at both schools are not achieving even the bare-minimum requirements for admittance to UC campuses. The district's A-G average is 50.1%.

Data alone can be meaningless; that's why it is important to connect the dots, to try to understand why students at CdM and Costa Mesa high schools, just five miles apart, can produce a 50-point spread in this key academic measurement.

One reason is that at least three of the elementary schools that feed into the two Costa Mesa high schools are producing students who are not prepared to achieve the A-G requirements. This is not a theory; it is based on Academic Performance Index (API) data that I provided in this column more than a year ago.

The three elementary schools — Wilson, Pomona and Whittier — have failing API scores. Worse, there is no apparent plan in place to raise them.

To understand the extent of the school board's indifference to these elementary schools, one need only look at the time spent recently by Brooks, who has been a fixture at Hubbard's criminal trial in downtown Los Angeles. Brooks was there Friday, the day I witnessed the proceedings, and he has been there other days as well.

There is nothing for Brooks to do at Hubbard's trial. His time would be much better spent traveling another 30 minutes up the road visiting Plummer Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley.

At Plummer, 90% of the students are poor and two-thirds begin school not fluent in English. Plummer, however, is one of the top-performing elementary schools in the entire Los Angeles Unified School District.

Instead of wasting time at a trial at which he can do nothing except observe, Brooks should visit Plummer, find out what's working and apply those strategies and tactics to the three elementary schools. In time, the A-G percentages at Estancia and Costa Mesa would rise.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Brooks to follow this best-practices principle. I highlighted the failing schools more than a year ago and made the recommendation to visit Plummer six weeks ago, but Brooks has chosen courts over kids.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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