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School Flight Part 3: Families return to neighborhood schools

Special report

Whether forced by the recession or overcoming stereotypes, some families realize best school choice was down the street.

September 06, 2011|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com
  • Steve Mensinger, left, and son Cole, 17, decided the sports opportunities and improved academics were a better fit at Estancia High School, rather than Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. They stand at Estancia’s Jim Scott Stadium.
Steve Mensinger, left, and son Cole, 17, decided the sports… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

Last of three parts.

COSTA MESA — Jill Fales remembers moving to Mesa Verde three years ago and hearing neighborhood parents recite stereotypes in an effort to dissuade her from enrolling her son in the elementary school down the street.

Adams Elementary educated too many immigrant children from the city's Westside, they warned. Not enough of them spoke English at home. Classrooms were not competitive for upper-middle class children. So in heeding the advice, the mother of four filled out transfer paperwork to enroll her son at nearby Hawes Elementary, a public school in Huntington Beach. Her other three kids were already enrolled at private schools.

Then she heard there was a new principal at Adams. She met with Gabe Del Real, who spent hours explaining the 460-student campus' innovative programs, his vision and his teachers' abilities. She decided to dismiss the warnings and enroll her son Wyatt in the neighborhood school.

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"I can honestly say, I am overwhelmed with shame. Shame on me for letting other people tell me, 'Don't send your child to Adams,'" Fales, a 40-year-old writer, told a group of parents at an Adams community forum earlier this year. "Wyatt is thriving. He is happy."

While her conversion is still the exception, a few Mesa Verde families have been breaking the trend and transferring in, not out, of the neighborhood schools.

They are lured by sports opportunities, relief from private-school tuition and zealous principals whose efforts are slowly changing perceptions.

"If it's things we can address, we should try. If it's ideological reasons, we're not going to be able to solve that," said Newport-Mesa Unified school board Trustee Katrina Foley, who recently asked the district to find out why parents are leaving and to devise a campaign to keep Mesa Verde kids enrolled locally.

The economy could be driving some of the changes. Newport-Mesa Unified spokeswoman Laura Boss said many students who were attending private schools chose Newport-Mesa during the economic downturn. About 500 Newport-Mesa residents who were attending outside of the district enrolled here during the 2009-10 school year.

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