Community Commentary: Smith's generalizations about Newport-Mesa are wrong

It is surprising and disappointing to me that the Daily Pilot gives license to Steve Smith to write a weekly column continuously bashing the Newport-Mesa schools, its school board and the performance of its students.

His misleading, defamatory and malicious articles have been published with apparently no editorial review. Smith selectively picks out bits of information that, taken alone, misinterpret the progress and successes, especially of our Westside schools.

Specifically, with his Feb. 1 column, "City Life: District resistant to change," he states, "instead of building the missing support system and watching the kids hit the ground running when they return to school, we'll [the school board] watch them continue to flounder."

Smith then goes on to deride me specifically for "not taking any action or being sincerely outraged by this."

Mostly, I am outraged by Smith and the Pilot for publishing Smith's misleading and malicious musing. After reading his most recent article, I would like to point out a number of facts. Apparently, Smith is uncomfortable with facts that don't support his diatribes.

The fact is test scores are lowest in our schools that are heavily impacted with students whose primary language is other than English because the California Standards Tests are administered in English. Further, research demonstrates that it takes five to seven years on average for a student to become fluent in English so that she or he is on par with English-speaking students.

The fact is we have a multifaceted system in place to build a support system to help students learn English as quickly as possible so that they can be successful in English, which then breeds success in other subject areas like history, science and math.

As part of a district-wide reading initiative in 2011, teachers began administering universal reading screenings that target each child, find areas of weakness, plan a course of remediation and work with each child on deficits.

Data show that the system is working. One of the many examples includes a Wilson Elementary School third-grader who started the reading intervention at a kindergarten level and has progressed two grade levels within two months of work. At Whittier Elementary School, huge growth is being seen when students receive additional time to access direct instruction on a skill until mastery is reached.

The fact is we have an after-school program (ASP) as another intervention for students who need more help. ASP staff communicate with the school's classroom teachers to identify specific deficit areas. At Wilson, Whittier and Pomona elementary schools this allows students the opportunity to work on their deficit skills for up to 30 additional minutes each day.

The fact is we have a strong parent education program in place at all these schools. Each school's English Learner Advisory Committee supports parents with focused training topics. In addition, all Westside schools have benefited from the Parenting Wisely Program, a six-week parent education series.

The fact is our Westside schools continue to have high reclassification numbers as a result of our strong English Language Development Program and continue to reclassify more and more students each year as being English proficient. In the schools Smith admonishes, 76 students have been newly reclassified over the past year.

The fact is teaching English learners requires continued training and incorporation of new methods. Our teachers receive training on how to teach vocabulary using research-based strategies that address the needs of English learners. Our teachers then work collaboratively to implement these "best practice" strategies to ensure that each student is learning.

After throwing aside what he considers our failing elementary schools, Smith criticizes our Costa Mesa high schools for not preparing our students for admission to the University of California or California State University systems.

The fact is our district graduation rate is 94.8%, and continues to rise every year. District-wide, 50% of our graduates are eligible for a four-year university, including UCs and CSUs straight out of high school, which outpaces county and state averages.

The remaining 44.8% of our graduates are prepared to attend college (non-four-year university). When you consider our challenging demographics (e.g., homeless population, English learner population, low socio-economic numbers, etc.) only 5.21% of our seniors do not graduate college ready. While we continue to look to improve this number, it is still quite a feat.

The fact is, the state has designated a Similar School Score ranking to Estancia (10 of 10 or highest) and to Costa Mesa (8 of 10), which suggests that the educational program at these schools compared to other schools of similar demographics is superior.

So, do we want to require all students to meet the "A – G" requirements, when we know we will lose quite a few students while forcing them to take subjects such as algebra II and trigonometry, or should we prepare this select group for another college experience or technical trade school?

There is nothing to keep our high school graduates, who are not quite ready for a rigorous course of study they would find at UCs and CSUs, to attend a junior college as they learn at their own pace and then transfer to a four-year college when ready. I maintain that it would be better for some of our struggling students to take this path rather than force them on a too rigorous course of study that would only increase the high school dropout rate.

With the time it takes for Smith to write his weekly attacks on the school district and its leadership, I suggest to him that he visit some of the schools about which he writes and note what is being done on a daily basis to improve the learning at each of them. He may even want to attend board meetings or study sessions where these schools discuss their programs for success.

Let me close by saying that every Newport-Mesa school board member and all district administrators are committed to working collaboratively with our teachers to continue improving all our schools, even our highest-performing schools in Newport Beach.

Looking at ways to help our students achieve success is a daily topic throughout the district. Smith may want to join some of those topical conversations.

And finally, to the Pilot, there are other important investigative stories to report in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, and it would be helpful to the community to write about those, rather than simply publishing the one-sided, biased, just plain nasty columns from Smith.

KAREN YELSEY is a Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustee.

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