Apodaca: Education solutions rely on funds

Administrators at some Newport-Mesa schools that fail to meet federal standards have come up with some compelling ideas to try to turn things around.

There's just one problem: They all cost money.

Last week, the school board voted to allocate $1.1 million to one such program, which calls for additional instructional time to help the 11 schools in the so-called Program Improvement category boost student test scores.

The move requires some financial acrobatics, since the money must come out of the district's existing budget — what Deputy Supt. Paul Reed calls "cobbling together" funds from various sources that are intended for such purposes.

Some of the funding sources are one-time only, so they'll be used to pay for the new curriculum, while other revenue streams will go toward staff development and an optional extended school year for struggling students this summer.

Although all the funds in question come from federal coffers, nearly $500,000 of the total still depends on approvals from Sacramento. If the district gets the go-ahead on allocating those funds, the extended-day part of the intervention program could be implemented in the next school year.

It's a lot to wrap your head around, but suffice it to say that Reed has become something of an expert in the art of stretching a buck in these depressed times.

Funding issues aside, will the program work?

There's a lot to recommend the concept. More teaching time is a popular idea these days, and it continues to gain traction throughout the nation.

Indeed, it's not surprising that Newport-Mesa administrators favor extending the number of instructional hours as an antidote for failure. No less than President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan are advocates of the same.

Supporters point to other developed nations — including many that outperform the United States in math, science and literacy — that have significantly longer school years. Advocates also argue that low-income students — the ones whose families can't afford after-school and summer enrichment activities — would benefit the most, and test scores would improve as a result.

But not everyone agrees. Dissenters argue that the relationship between instructional time and student achievement is far more complicated than many would have us believe. Yes, many countries have longer school terms, they acknowledge, but they contend that the actual time spent in the classroom teaching is higher in the United States.

The debate comes down to the old quality versus quantity conundrum: As tempting as it might be to add more teaching time, it's a wasted effort if the extra time isn't used effectively. The Newport-Mesa intervention program will succeed only if the added hours and days are used to implement targeted, intensive, proven techniques for reaching the kids most in need of help.

For now, it appears, other intriguing ideas for turning Newport-Mesa's troubled schools around are on the back burner, including language-immersion programs, and a request to turn Paularino Elementary School into a magnet school focused on arts.

Magnets have been around since the late 1960s, and were originally envisioned as a way to diversify schools by allowing students from outside zoned boundaries to enroll. Offering specialized curricula was seen as the way to make these campuses attractive to outsiders.

Unlike charter schools, which are independently administered, magnets operate within existing district bureaucracy. Newport-Mesa has one magnet school, Davis, which is dedicated to science and math.

Over the years, magnets have evolved. Now, instead of a means of enhancing diversity, their main purpose is seen as achieving academic excellence.

Supporters tout their academic successes, popularity among students and commitment by the faculties and families involved to setting and reaching high goals. They also contend that progressive teaching methods used in magnets can be shared with other schools in a district.

Magnets aren't universally loved. Critics charge that they drain neighboring schools of bright, talented kids, and that the often-competitive process of selecting magnet students is unfair to those who get turned away. The students who don't get in are often the very ones who might benefit most, they say.

Even so, plans like this are worth considering. Reed said the magnet and language-immersion proposals "are viable ideas that will undoubtedly draw additional conversation at some point."

The reality is that the district has only so many resources, and it's chosen to place its bets for now on the extra teaching time concept.

Of course, such decisions need to be made. But as important they are, an even more pressing problem looms.

California is broke. Education is flatlining. Two tax measures headed for the ballot in November — one backed by Gov. Jerry Brown — wouldn't cure our ailing schools but would at least keep many of them on life support.

In Newport-Mesa, we've dug into our reserve fund the past couple of years to keep things going. But Brown has said he'll have no choice but to take an ax to the education budget if his tax plan is rejected. One way to do that, we're told, is to reduce the school year.

Before long, the conversation might be a long way from saving our foundering schools. It will be about how to keep the entire ship from sinking. That's a conversation we don't want to have.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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