First of three parts.

COSTA MESA — As he tours Mesa Verde with prospective home buyers, Realtor Larry Weichman boasts of the neighborhood country club's heated swimming pool and acclaimed golf pro.

But when clients ask about the public schools, Weichman becomes more circumspect.

The chairman of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce pulled his son out of the neighborhood elementary school and sent him instead to the nearby Huntington Beach City School District.

"It's sad," said Weichman, who lives two doors from Adams Elementary School.

Like other families on his block, he and his son leave Mesa Verde's lush, ribbon-like streets and take a six-lane arterial road across the Santa Ana River to go to school.

From a distance, it seems counterintuitive, as most believe that nice neighborhoods also have great schools.

But many Mesa Verde families say their campuses don't make the grade. They cite low test scores, listen to neighbors' often outdated stories of gang violence, and then flee the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for private schools — or public schools in neighboring districts.

Their flight illustrates a larger trend in suburbs across the country, experts say. As immigrants continue to move into historically white communities, the established families are choosing to leave their neighborhood campuses. Nationally recognized academics, as well those familiar with Mesa Verde's situation, say this choice can divide a community and separate children along socioeconomic lines.

"People have bought into the idea that having choice in education is a good idea, and your neighborhood school is not necessarily where you'd want to send your kid," said Ken Tye, professor emeritus and former head of Chapman University's education program. "You see what damage it does to the idea of 'the public school as the place where people come together and learn to be together.' "

Mesa Verde families have departed their community schools for more than 15 years, beginning around when theU.S. Department of Educationdirected Adams Elementary — in the middle of Mesa Verde on Club House Road — to enroll students from Costa Mesa's largely blue-collar Westside. Entrenched families, many of them white, at the time resisted sending their children to school with Latino immigrants, so they fled.

Although flight persists today, other factors seem to inform Mesa Verde families' decisions to leave: easy access to test scores, chatter across backyard fences, and the desire to send kids to school with their friends. That said, plenty of families, influenced by modern attitudes about class, race and community building, are beginning to return to neighborhood schools — and are impressed with what they've found.


A seemingly idyllic place to attend school

Up the curved road north of Adams Avenue is the Mesa Verde Country Club, flanked on the west by the Santa Ana River. The south side of the neighborhood is bounded by Fairview Park, with 17 acres of wetlands and restored riparian habitat. Streets named after birds — Swan, Oriole and Albatross drives — hug the hamlet's undulating hills. Mesa Verde is unlike Costa Mesa's many flat (Mesa, after all, means table in Spanish) and grid-based neighborhoods.

Across the river, the Huntington Beach public schools welcome Costa Mesa children, as each new pupil brings in additional government funding. Roughly 500 students who live in Newport-Mesa Unified's boundaries attend Huntington Beach public schools. No other city comes close to drawing as many Newport-Mesa students.

Another 518 current students left Mesa Verde schools for other campuses within the Newport-Mesa district, including those in Eastside Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. Adams Elementary has 460 students.

Whether outside schools are "better" is subjective, because plenty of parents who send their kids to their Mesa Verde-area schools say their children are excelling. But the perception of higher quality in Huntington Beach has been sending families westbound on Adams Avenue, in search of good schools, for years.

"It's what's said over the backyard fence, what's said at the barbecue, about where you should send your kids to school," said Paul Reed, deputy superintendent at Newport-Mesa. "And that kind of stuff is very difficult to change."

Other districts are dealing with the same issue. An analysis by UCLA's Civil Rights Project found that nearly 30% of Latino suburban students attend schools with no more than 10% white students.