You can now add better-than-expected high school graduation rates to the list of academic accolades at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
An independent study found that the graduation rate of the district's six high schools in 2007 was unusually high, at 86%, given a set of socio-economic factors that seemed to have stacked the odds against them.
Some of those factors included the 40% of the student body that receives free or reduced-price lunches and a 48% minority student enrollment in what the study characterized as a segregated student body, or clusters.
This isn't necessarily a negative thing, according to Chris Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, the Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit that conducted the study.
"It's hard to say how they did it, but when you take into account that the district is just about half minority, and you factor in all of the other characteristics, we weren't expecting it to be this high of a performer," Swanson said.
Swanson said a computer model specifically created for the study, after having crunched all the numbers, predicted Newport-Mesa's graduation rate should have been a poor 57%.
In all, 150 large urban districts in the nation were studied this past spring, but it was Newport-Mesa that took first, followed by David Douglas School District in Portland, Ore., then Texarkana Independent School District in Texas at No. 3.
However, Swanson tempered the overall results, saying that the study only dealt with those districts whose student population ranged between 3,000 and 22,000 — not with "extremely large ones," such as Los Angeles, New York or Chicago.
"The pool here that we're talking about is large urban districts," Swanson said. "Newport-Mesa's not No. 1, if you just took any school district in the country. What we're doing here is looking at a narrowly defined subset."
That subset includes the size of the district (21,421 students), the average number of high school students per school (1,022), the percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch (40%, half of whom were minority) and per pupil expenditures ($9,250 per student, which is lower than the national average) and student-to teacher ratio (21 to 1).
While the results may be somewhat mystifying to Swanson, they were anything but mysterious to Newport-Mesa Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard. He credited the school board and the district's faculty and teachers.
"There are a whole bunch of reasons why we did so well, but the first one and, perhaps most importantly, is that the board was very clear with me that they did not want one student to drop out of our system," Hubbard said, referring to July 2006 when he first started. "And they've been strongly encouraging staff to identify programs and keep kids in school."
One of those programs is how intervention plays out at Back Bay Continuation High School and Monte Vista Independent High School, where the classes are extremely small and where students who need help are paid special attention by the teachers, said Deborah Davis, principal of both schools for eight years.
"Here, we re-engage kids," Davis said. "We get them back on track, and we reunite them with their families. We work hard to dispel the myth that we're working with a bunch of 'loser' students who get kicked out of mainstream high schools. They actually have to apply to get in here."
With 500 students at Back Bay, and 300 at Monte Vista, Davis said she can only recall one student who didn't graduate in the last couple years.
But when students come to the schools, she added, many of them are well short of the 120 credits they should have by their sophomore year, a combination of simply not attending classes in the four main high schools and failing their classes as a result.
"They just don't connect," Davis said. "They find out that they can be truants and they find other things to do during the day. They usually don't have strong family support that sets going to school as an expectation."
Teachers and faculty having nothing but high expectations for their students, said Bo May, a special education teacher at Back Bay and Monte Vista.
He runs the Resource Specialist Program, which monitors the progress of mild to moderately disabled students.
"We facilitate their academics," said May, a New York state native who's been teaching at the schools for seven years and has a master's degree in special education. "They have a period with me every day, so anything that needs to be done, if they need to be re-taught, if they're having problems with certain subjects, I meet with them and we try to teach them a different way. I stay in touch with their teachers."
The academic programs can range from autism to dyslexia to different forms of disabilities that can be overcome in the classroom, May said.
Some of the students, he said, are incredibly smart in some areas and not in others, noting that there are a few students who can tell you about the particulars of history in some countries that many people don't even know how to pronounce or aren't even aware exists.
"But then they'll have problems with their hand writing or their math will only be at a third-grade level," he said. "But their minds work in serious ways."
The other four high schools also intervene successfully as the slightest signs of problems in the classrooms, Hubbard said.
"When they start to struggle, they get 'red-flagged,'" he said.
12th-grade graduation rates of Newport-Mesa four comprehensive high schools in the 2006-2007 academic year
Corona del Mar High: 370 students enrolled; 356 graduated = 96.21%
Costa Mesa High: 273 students enrolled; 235 graduated = 86.08%
Estancia High: 220 students enrolled; 182 graduated = 82.72%
Newport Harbor High: 512 students enrolled; 446 graduated = 87.1%
SOURCE: California Dept. of Education