District looking into specialized courses

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is a step closer to creating flagship programs under which students could specialize in a subject from elementary school to graduation.

School officials recently completed a far-reaching survey asking students and parents what specialized paths they would like to see.

Broadly, Costa Mesa schools want more technical education and Newport Beach campuses see a need for more life skills, according to the data released Tuesday in a 98-page report.

Since November, school officials convened in-person meetings and amassed online responses, ultimately hearing from 1,652 students and parents in the 21,000-student district.

The survey grew from an idea to create flagship subjects that could in essence turn a student's education into a 12-year magnet program.

Each of the four school zones in Newport-Mesa would have a different specialization for students to follow through their educational careers. District officials would have to figure out how enrollment would work and whether students in one zone could participate in the offerings of another zone.

During 33 meetings at Newport-Mesa campuses and an online survey, district employees tested the waters, asking what subjects each zone wants.

"We went to each school. We found each one to be a little different than one another," said Jane Garland, district director of community services and support.

But the data showed some trends districtwide. The highest demand overall was for math and science fields. Twenty-one percent of respondents asked for a focus in one of three categories related to science, technology, engineering or math.

"Together [they] were overwhelming," Garland said.

The intent of the survey, though, was to focus on the district's four schools zones. Each one — Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa, Estancia and Newport Harbor — shares a name with the high school it surrounds. By gauging interest from students and parents, administrators hope to distill two subjects each zone would claim as flagships.

At Costa Mesa schools, the science, technology, engineering and math focus held strong, gaining support of 21% of respondents in that zone. Close behind was theater, music or dance, which 19% of respondents requested. Life skills and sports came in third and fourth.

In the Estancia zone, 30% asked for a science, technology, engineering or math-based focus. Theater, music or dance was second with 17%. There was also strong interest in dual language or life skills programs.

At Newport Beach schools, life skills outweighed all else. In the Corona del Mar zone, 30% of respondents asked for a focus on communications or life skills. In the Newport Harbor zone, 23% asked for communications, life skills or business.

Science, technology, engineering or math was the next highest choice in those two zones at 15% and 19%, respectively. Theater arts and dual language programs rounded out the top four in both zones.

Each zone and school had individual preferences beyond those broad strokes, Garland said, much of which she and two co-authors tried to include with the report presented to the school board this week.

"In the details was the good stuff," she said.

Some schools, for instance, showed a strong proclivity toward sports programs or fine arts.

Students throughout the district especially requested life skills or sports programs at a rate of 31% and 15%, respectively.

Next month, zonewide meetings will be held, allowing teachers, administrators and parents' groups representatives to sift through the data and try to settle on two flagship programs to develop in each zone.

They will send recommendations to the board some time in June, and trustees will consider if, how and when they want to move forward with flagship programs, Garland said.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, many trustees expressed excitement about the idea and the data.

But funding was in question, especially when talking about technology-heavy specializations.

Garland said she thought "much of this can be done without money," through the reallocation of resources.

Even with data and timeline in hand, board members and administrators cautioned that there are many decision to be hammered out.

"Frankly you have so much fluidity," Garland said. "We can't be set in stone on this one."


Twitter: @jeremiahdoruck

By The Numbers

1,652: The number of parents and students who responded to the district's flagship survey

21: The percentage of total respondents who wanted a focus on science, math and technology-related subjects

19: The percentage of total respondents who wanted a focus on communications, life skills or business

31: The percentage of students respondents who wanted a flagship program for communications, life skills or business

15: The percentage of students respondents who wanted a flagship program for sports

14: The percentage of students respondents who wanted a flagship program for theater arts

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