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. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / September 7, 2011)

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.

"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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Where business strategy meets education

Marketing plays a role. Some principals have employed strategies that might have come from a public relations playbook. Kirk Bauermeister, the Estancia High School principal, and his predecessor, Phil D'Agostino, came from the business world before entering education, and have applied sales principles at Estancia and TeWinkle Intermediate School.

"(At Estancia) you get the opportunity to experience different ideas and different backgrounds and different perspectives that you're going to end up dealing with," said D'Agostino, a former restaurant manager.

Bauermeister, who has a full goatee, mustache and often wears mismatched tie-shirt combinations, is disarming and relentless at the same time. Before teaching, he owned a popular independent sporting goods shop.

Now, he conducts surveys to find out what parents and students think about his school.

"The schools today really have to court the parents a little more," said Vicki Snell, whose children attended Adams, TeWinkle and Estancia.

To compete with private schools with slick websites and robust marketing budgets, Estancia boosters produced a video with testimonials from seniors bound for the Ivy League and other top universities.

Perhaps their biggest challenge is to overcome negative preconceptions. While often outdated or exaggerated, TeWinkle's reputation for violence and classroom disruptions was deserved, most say, until Bauermeister cracked down at the 735-student campus a few years ago.

In his time running the middle school on California Street, he gained a reputation as a no-nonsense principal who wouldn't tolerate fights or other disruptions. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of expulsions and suspensions from drugs or violence at TeWinkle dropped by half, from 167 the year before Bauermeister arrived to 82 (it has since risen).

He credits a strict dress code, prohibiting loitering in the halls and other measures.