City Life: It's in the school district's DNA to resist change

One Newport-Mesa Unified school board member said this about the underperforming schools on Costa Mesa's Westside: "We can't just accept those scores. We have to help those kids improve. We need to do something about it. We need to see all our scores in that 50th percentile."

In response, I wrote: "My prediction: Nothing will happen and instead of building the missing support system and watching the kids hit the ground running next month when they return to school, we'll watch them continue to flounder. And a year from now, I won't have to write a new column about the latest low scores; I can just send this one."

I've waited far more than a year to reprint these quotes. The trustee was Serene Stokes and these excerpts are from a Daily Pilot column I wrote in August 2000.

Since that column, many of the children in three of Costa Mesa's failing elementary schools — Wilson, Whittier and Pomona — have left our school system. Of those who graduated from Estancia or Costa Mesa high schools, two-thirds were not prepared for even the lowest standards of admission to the University of California.

Still here since that column are four of the seven school board members: Dave Brooks, Martha Fluor, Dana Black and Judy Franco. Combined, they have served for more than 78 years.

Ironically, in 2006 I publicly supported current board member Karen Yelsey in her bid to unseat Stokes. Today, I could write about Yelsey what I wrote about Stokes in 2000, but with one difference: Stokes may not have taken any action, but at least she expressed sincere outrage. Yelsey has done neither.

The school board must now find a replacement for Jeffrey Hubbard, who was terminated as school superintendent after his recent guilty verdict on two counts of misappropriation of public funds when he was superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

When choosing Hubbard's replacement, we should not care how amiable or benevolent the candidate is, or whether he or she can place cute pictures in a PowerPoint presentation. Those are subjective attributes that contribute little to school performance. The critical requirement for the new superintendent is experience in turning around underperforming schools.

The best candidate will be data-driven, will apply what has worked elsewhere to Costa Mesa's schools, and will make each decision on a rational basis, not an emotional one. What we need now is not a superintendent from a district like Beverly Hills where, as with the great schools in Newport Beach, even I could be a hero, but someone who has rolled up his sleeves and worked in the trenches where measurable progress is made.

We need a boss, not a buddy.

Schools in Costa Mesa need the full attention of a superintendent who will forgo the endless lunches, meetings and conferences that have not helped move the performance needle of the three elementary schools in favor of improving Costa Mesa's elementary schools, thus improving its high schools.

I have little faith that this brand of superintendent will emerge, for it is in the DNA of the current bureaucracy, save perhaps for Katrina Foley, to resist substantive change. But if I am wrong, the board can begin its search by interviewing Angel Barrett, the principal of Plummer Elementary School in North Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. Barrett has helped create a culture of learning at Plummer despite the usual excuses of cultural differences and economic hardships.

Here is what the Los Angeles Daily News wrote about Barrett on July 2, 2009: "When Angel Barrett arrived at Plummer Elementary School, the North Hills campus was failing, test scores were sagging and student achievement was low.

"A decade later, thanks to Barrett's hard work, Plummer has turned around. Test scores are soaring above the state and district average, and the school is no longer marked as a program improvement school under No Child Left Behind guidelines."

Based on past school board performance, our new superintendent is likely to be another Hubbard type — a nice person who talks positively and gets along with everyone but who is unable to help those students in Costa Mesa's failing elementary schools who eventually grow up to be our high school graduates.

He cannot help, not because he doesn't want to, but because he doesn't know how.

It's too bad for the parents, teachers and students at the three schools, but good for me. If I'm still around, I now have a column ready to publish in 11 years.

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

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World