Sage Advice

Photo by Keith MayIn 1998, Greenbriar High School in Evans, Georgia, declared March 20 "Coke Day." It was part of the school's effort to capture the Atlanta soft-drink maker's $500 top prize in a contest to find the local school most enthusiastically promoting Coca-Cola. Greenbriar encouraged students to dress in red and white. Chemistry classes spent the morning analyzing the beverage's sugar content. School officials hired a photographer to capture the student body arranged to spell out "Coke." Amid the euphoria, killjoy senior Mike Cameron strolled on campus wearing a Pepsi T-shirt. He was immediately slapped with a one-day suspension.

Now consider the possibility that corporations such as Coca-Cola will actually build schools, which is close to precisely what has happened in the case of Newport Coast's sparkling new—and private—Sage Hill School.

Sage Hill undoubtedly will attract families whose superior earning power will allow them to purchase custom-made, multimillion-dollar homes overlooking the Pacific. People with that sort of cash have ambitions for their offspring—ambitions not likely advanced by enrollment in mere public schools, and certainly not in such public schools as are common in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

When it opens Sept. 5 with 125 freshmen and sophomores, Sage Hill School is to be the remedy for educational mediocrity. Aiming to become a premier college-prep private high school, the nonsectarian school is backed by some of the county's most powerful businesspeople —and those with the biggest investment in Newport Coast development: Gary Hunt, executive vice president of the Irvine Co.; school trustee David M. Fields, vice president and general counsel of Irvine Retail Properties Company, an Irvine Co. subsidiary; Donald Koll, chairman and CEO of the Koll construction company; and Koll's daughter, school trustee Dori Koll Caillouette.

The school's temporary administrative offices are in the Koll Company's Newport Beach headquarters. The Irvine Co. granted the school a 30-acre campus in a 99-year land lease; Sage Hill has the option to purchase the parcel before the expiration of the lease term. (Sage Hill officials refused to provide the Weeklywith a complete list of contributors, but an official said the Irvine Co. is not the school's "primary benefactor.")

Even if Sage Hill lures wealthy, home-buying families to the Newport Coast, it is no developer's tool. The school has already attracted stellar administrators and a polished faculty. Head of School Clint Wilkins is recently arrived from Sidwell Friends, the Washington, D.C., prep school attended by the scions of the internationally powerful, including Chelsea Clinton.

In a newsletter that also serves as a marketing device, the school says it "will instill in its students a love of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge productively, courageously and compassionately throughout their lives."

One part of that mission will be achieved through a program the school calls "service learning"—a community-service venture that illustrates the potential dangers of corporate-backed education.

Service learning is aimed at real-world education because, as Wilkins said in last winter's issue of the school's newsletter, Sage Advisor, "Teenagers love to grapple with ethical dilemmas. They are old enough to construct the ideal world in their minds and yet young enough not to accept life's injustices. Service fuels their idealism and gives them a tangible way to improve the world. Service is ethical thought in action. Powerful stuff!"

That same issue of the Advisorproposes this hypothetical service-learning activity: "Science students might evaluate the environmental impact of developments in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean." And to make public this information, a separate Sage Hill brochure suggests that "students may monitor local water quality and post their results on the Internet." Interviewed by the Weekly, academic dean Liz Resnick offered another outlet for her students' findings: a letter-writing campaign to the Times' community paper in the area, the Daily Pilot.

But if industrious Sage Hill students really do stroll down the street to sample runoff from the Irvine Co.'s soon-to-be-completed residential developments atop Crystal Cove State Park, they might indeed find something to campaign about.

An underwater biological preserve, Crystal Cove is one of just three Orange County spots listed by the state as an area "of special biological significance." It's one of the few places on Earth where dolphin pods have been repeatedly seen in birthing circles, sheltering pregnant females as they deliver their young.

It's a fragile spot, but one of Sage Hill's benefactors, the Irvine Co., has been repeatedly involved in fouling Crystal Cove. In the past nine months alone, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board hit two of the developer's subcontractors with $170,030 in fines. These include $148,000 for almost 16 million gallons of recycled sewage that flowed into Crystal Cove from the Pelican Hill Golf Course on May 5 and a fine of $22,030 for heavily chlorinated water discharged into Los Trancos creek, a Crystal Cove tributary, on Nov. 15.

Environmentalist Garry Brown says the Irvine Co.'s developments around Crystal Cove stripped many of the slopes above the park of vegetation. As a result, says Brown, leader of the environmental watchdog group CoastKeepers, a March storm produced a sediment plume stretching from Crystal Cove to the Corona del Mar jetty two miles away. And on July 12, runoff generated by an Irvine Co. subcontractor seeped onto the shores of Crystal Cove.

Given such incidents, a Sage Hill biology class mucking about Crystal Cove might easily conclude that "the impact of developments in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean" has indeed been harmful. What then? Will the school's administration really encourage a "letter-writing campaign to the Daily Pilot" decrying its own patron?

Powerful stuff!

Curious, we approached Resnick and Wilkins. At first, Resnick demurred, "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." Further pressed, she allowed, "I'm not sure we'll study water quality. That's just one of the many service projects our students might be involved in."

Wilkins insisted the school's "students will pursue what they need to pursue and will share their views as they see fit. We will have a free and open exchange of ideas."

Let's hope so. What better way to teach the value of community service and the virtue of putting "ethical thought in action?" Conversely, if Sage Hill chooses to muffle or avoid the issue, it will furnish its wealthy students with an object lesson in the power of their own money.

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