City Life: Nursing an investment in Newport-Mesa district

Voters decided Nov. 2 that 30 years of Judy Franco on the school board was not enough, but that four years of Michael Collier was too many.

The reason could be that Franco has had 30 years to establish a solid voting base to which she caters and supports her in turn by re-electing her every four years.

Collier, on the other hand, had done little to distinguish himself on the panel, and when faced with opposition from Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who entered the race with tremendous name recognition, the Foley brand beat the Collier brand.

Next month, Foley will take a seat on the school board dais with six colleagues, each of whom will make decisions regarding the education of our children, one of America's most important investments.

Foley's challenge will not be a lack of resources, but a lack of will, specifically, to try anything meaningful to correct that horrendous performance of some Westside Costa Mesa schools.

The crisis is particularly apparent when reviewing the numbers for Wilson, Whittier and Pomona elementary schools. Other schools need, help, too, but these three are desperate for change, as they involve the youngest of our students.

At Whittier, for example, the Academic Performance Index ranking is declining. In 2006, on a 10-point scale, it received a 4. Two years later, in 2008, it ranked a 2.

The larger problem — one that Foley alone cannot solve — is the entrenchment of the educational establishment, a bureaucracy so afraid of change that it has allowed the Westside madness to continue for years.

Foley can put an end to this neglect through a relentless pursuit of excellence and by pushing back when a colleague says, "We've tried that."

She can recommend real innovation on the Westside that does not mean a task force or commission to study the problem.

And please, no more community input meetings or shuffling of school teachers or principals.

Don't expect the shuffling to end anytime soon; it has been an effective stalling tactic in lieu of any serious attempt at improvement.

The latest shuffling is the "teacher exchange," which the board is now casually considering.

"The so-called 'teacher exchange' would be an experience that teachers could benefit from because they would be exposed to the different socio-economic levels between Costa Mesa's Westside and Eastside schools," according to a recent Daily Pilot article.

No data were presented showing that this program has a track record of success. Again, all we are seeing is just more feel-good maneuvering.

Where is the charter school on the Westside? Charter schools are not a silver bullet — they don't always work. But sometimes they do, yet, the school board has resisted attempts to establish a charter school because that means giving up control, which violates the first rule of maintaining the status quo.

Where is a test of same-sex schools? A Washington Post story from August, 2010 noted that, "In March 2010, the Center on Education Policy released a report of 2008 test scores showing that boys trailed girls in reading in every one of the more than 40 states where data were available." The story went on to report how one school district was answering the challenge with same-sex elementary schools.

The No. 1 activity kids undertake when they turn off the TV or computer is reading, and reading is the key to academic success. So where is the equivalent of a "Red Ribbon Week" to get kids to stop sitting in front of TV and computer screens in their spare time?

Where is the school board member who should be writing to you regularly in the pages of this newspaper about the status of these and other schools?

Most important, where is the ownership and accountability for the failure?

The parents and students on the Westside need a champion, a true leader who will propose something new and will not be concerned about the threat it may pose to business as usual. And if that doesn't work, she'll try something else.

The point is to try.

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

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