OC Schools up their game with quality programs as families have more education options than ever
For Orange County parents considering their children’s educational future, it’s all about options.
Whether it’s public schools, private schools, charter schools or even home schooling, families have many choices when it comes to where kids will be attending school. And school districts are taking note.
“Over the past several years, public education has significantly changed,” said Brea Olinda Unified School District Communications Specialist Nichole Pichardo. “These days, ‘choice’ is a word that’s frequently heard in discussions of families that live in Brea and our surrounding cities. If parents hear that a surrounding school may offer better programs, they can investigate charter schools, private schools or neighboring public school districts with open-enrollment options.”
In light of that, the preschool-to-12 school district, hosts events to attract and retain students, including a “Future Freshman” Open House, which brings younger students and families onto the Brea Olinda High School campus.
“We have seen increased efforts by districts to market their educational programs and services to students and families,” said County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares, Ph.D. “It has always been important to communicate your mission, vision, strategic priorities and accomplishments. That’s how you build coalitions that support your work. But the stakes are even higher today. In addition to having fewer school-age students in the county from which to draw, parents have more educational options than ever before.”
But, it goes beyond marketing, he said.
“Our districts are truly focused on developing programs that connect students’ natural interests with real-world experiences while building navigable pathways to careers, and they are rightly recognizing the importance of promoting those programs,” said Mijares.
Many school districts are certainly upping their game.
Brea Olinda Unified School District offers three magnet programs available to students inside and outside of the district including Fanning Academy of Science & Technology, which partners with Code to the Future, a creator of immersive computer science curricula, and engages all students in grades transitional kindergarten to six in technology and coding-based lessons. Laurel Elementary Magnet School of Innovation and Career Exploration has a school-wide partnership with the Discovery Cube of Orange County and engages students with 1:1 technology and problem-based outcome learning along with community partnerships at every grade level. While Arovista Elementary will offer a Dual Language Immersion program in the fall of 2019.
But Brea Olinda is just one example of the innovative offerings Orange County school districts are giving families to provide high-quality education. While some are more actively looking to entice new students than others, many are happy to welcome qualifying inter-district transfers.
Westminster School District, a pre-kindergarten-to-eight school district, is becoming known as a “destination district,” according to Public Information Officer Trish Montgomery. “Meaning that parents from outside our district are choosing to send their children here because they recognize that we offer innovative, forward-thinking programs that will set their children up for success,” she said.
In 2017, the district opened Finley Computer Science Magnet School—it was the first school of its kind in Orange County—while Sequoia Academy was established as a Gifted & Talented Education (GATE) Magnet School, featuring an academically rigorous program that focuses on STEAM and AVID. In 2015, the district became the first in California to implement a Vietnamese Dual Immersion program and earlier in 2019 it became the first district in the state to open a Vietnamese Dual Immersion program in preschool and transitional kindergarten. In April, it became the first district in Southern California to open a Spanish Dual Immersion toddler program and in August, it’ll be the first to open a Spanish Dual Immersion infant program.
Other districts, like the pre-kindergarten-to-sixth Cypress School District, are homing in on the arts.
“The success of the Cypress School District is grounded in our deep commitment to nurture the gifts and talents of all our students,” said Superintendent Anne Silavs. “In 2019/20, we are planning for the expansion of the district’s music program to include honor band and honor choir.”
Students in the district benefit from weekly music classes taught by credentialed music teachers during the school day. In addition to music theory and concepts, students learn how to play wind, string and percussion instruments as well as use their voices to make music.
“Every district in OC is experiencing declining enrollment,” said Buena Park School District Superintendent Dr. Ramon Miramontes. “Families are much smaller than in the past. In response to this we are acting on our commitment to embrace families as partners in educating their children through a sound educational program where creativity and innovation inspire students to learn at rigorous levels while being highly engaged.”
Buena Park School District, which serves grades pre-kindergarten to eighth, offers many STEM programs for its students. All sixth-grade students can partake in a week-long Science Camp experience and all students participate in coding activities at the elementary level. Junior high students are encouraged to take part in the local robotics team competition hosted by BPSD. Arts is another strong focus, with Corey Elementary School’s arts education program enhanced through two different grants awarded for the 2019-20 school year. The Disney Musicals In Schools Grant will help teach the wide spectrum of skills associated with producing musical theater. And the school is in the final award stage of earning a Pacific Symphony Class Act grant. The grant gives each student instruction by a guest musician as well as giving them the chance to attend a concert.
Anaheim Elementary School District, a pre-kindergarten-to-sixth district, has developed a larger program that encompasses many key programs in one.
“We are driven by the commitment to provide the best education possible and we do this through what we call an ‘e²STEAM-D’ education: engaging, equitable, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math and Dual Language Immersion learning opportunities for all students,” said Superintendent Christopher Downing. “For the 2019-2020 school year we look forward to offering all of our e²STEAM-D programs at all of our 23 schools. We look forward to being the only district in California to offer Dual Language Immersion opportunities at all school sites, and we look forward to continuing to expand our nationally-recognized music education program with the help of key partners in the music industry.”
He said they have many out-of-district families who choose to transfer their children into their schools because of their unique programs. In addition to its STEAM, Dual Language Immersion and music programs, all of its 23 schools offer healthy breakfast and lunch meals and special education classes. Barton offers classes for students who are visually impaired. Mann has classes for students who have auditory impairments. Westmont specializes in classes for students with significant health issues and mobile impairment.
Lowell Joint School District, a pre-kindergarten-to-eighth district, covering the southeastern part of Los Angeles County and the northwestern part of Orange County, has many recognitions under its belt.
“Lowell continues our long tradition of educational excellence and have been recognized at the state and national levels: All schools are California Distinguished and Gold Ribbon Schools, all schools have been recognized with Business Excellence Awards, Rancho-Starbuck is a State and National School to Watch, Lowell has been awarded four California School Board Association Golden Bell Awards, and most importantly our families recognize that our entire staff cares deeply about students,” said Superintendent Jim Coombs.
Some new and/or enhanced programs coming to Lowell this fall and into the years ahead include instrumental music for all sixth- through eighth-graders; launching dance at Rancho-Starbuck Jr. High; launch of the new Dual Immersion Language Academy at Jordan; design and development of Through the Garden Gate—The Living Classroom, sustainable-science-literacy gardens; and design and preparation for the Lowell Child Early Learning Center preschool to launch 2020/21.
Fullerton Joint Union High School District also has a broad range of innovative offerings, including world language programs in Spanish, German, French, Korean, Chinese, American Sign Language and for Spanish native speakers. In visual and performing arts, Buena Park High School has the Coyote Academy of Visual and Performing Arts (CAVPA), Fullerton Union High School has the Academy of the Arts/Triple Threat, Sonora High School has the Digital Media Academy—Gaming & VAPA and Sunny Hills High School has the Conservatory of Fine Arts (COFA).
“I am passionate about preparing students to enter the global workforce through integration of technology, real-world applications and rigorous instruction,” said Superintendent Scott Scambray. “Each day we seek to provide something for every student—something that will not only prepare them for college and career, but build character and integrity as well.”
Magnolia School District, a pre-kindergarten-through-sixth district covering parts of Anaheim and Stanton, was recently recognized for its good work. In a May 2019 Learning Policy Institute report it was noted as one of 54 school districts in California that is achieving at “extraordinary” levels, ranking eighth overall in the state for the achievement of its Hispanic students. Its Robert M. Pyles STEM Academy offers computer science instruction for all students and all incoming third-grade students in the district are invited to a four-week Summer STEM Academy. Meanwhile, Marshall School features a Dual Immersion program with daily instruction provided in English and Spanish. Students become bilingual and biliterate in both languages by sixth grade.
Food is also an important component of some school district programs. Laguna Beach Unified School District, a pre-kindergarten to 12th district with two elementary schools, a middle school and high school serving Laguna Beach, offers non-GMO food options, fresh-baked bread from a local bakery, 100 percent grass-fed, all-beef, hormone- and antibiotic-free hamburgers, 100 percent all-beef and nitrate- and nitrite-free hot dogs. Plus, 95 percent of all produce served is organic, and a Salad Bar at the elementary schools is included with every lunch.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District, a pre-kindergarten to 12th district including Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Corona del Mar, offers something a little different in the lunch department. In addition to healthy lunch options, there’s also an environmental component. “Our district also has phased out the use of plastic straws—thanks to one of our students who is on a mission to end plastic straws and help save the environment,” said Public Relations Officer Annette Franco.
Other program highlights include engineering, robotics, coding; Spanish and Mandarin Dual Immersion; Early College High School where students obtain high school and college credit; hands-on inquiry-based science labs at all schools; and mental health programs, resources and community partnerships. Plus, Davis Magnet School specifically emphasizes STEM instruction.
The district has the distinction of having the second-lowest class size in the county and has a 94 percent graduation rate. “Our district provides an extremely robust and purposeful set of programs and supports for all our students,” said Superintendent Fred Navarro. “We pride ourselves and our ability to inspire students and enrich communities by focusing on our priorities of high-quality instruction; supports for the emotional, behavioral and mental well-being of students; and community partnerships.”
Newport-Mesa Unified is basic aid (community funded), which means that local property taxes fund the district and it receives little state and federal funding, according to Franco. So they do not try to attract students from other districts.
“As a basic aid district we are only able [to] accept students that live within our district boundaries—Costa Mesa and Newport Beach,” Franco said. “We work to keep the students within our boundaries by offering extremely robust programs and retaining high-quality employees to implement programs.”
School districts throughout the county are putting their best foot forward for families—even those not actively recruiting students from outside the district, like Newport-Mesa, and Capistrano Unified School District (though it does allow transfers).
Serving transitional kindergarten to grade 12, Capistrano Unified includes all or part of San Clemente, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, and the communities of Las Flores, Coto de Caza, Dove Canyon, Ladera Ranch, Sendero/Rancho Mission Viejo and Wagon Wheel.
One of the district’s priorities is in STEAM/STEM education. One hundred teachers have completed 30 hours of coursework to become “Next Gen STEM Leaders.” All 36 elementary schools will have an Innovation Lab this year with 60 teachers having completed 10 hours of Innovation Lab training.
CUSD also offers a K-12 Language Immersion instructional model in both Spanish and Mandarin. Students must begin these programs as kindergartners with the goal of graduating biliterate, bilingual and with a wider understanding of different cultures and backgrounds.
In 2019-2020, CUSD will bring Primary Music to every school site and to every child from transitional kindergarten to third. CUSD has been named as a NAMM Best Community for Music Education.
Its special needs programs include SEALS (Supporting Early Academic Language Skills) for preschool students with mild/moderate disabilities; SAC (Structured Autism Class) for pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade students with moderate/severe autism; Launch for Success/STARS (Structured Teaching of Academic Readiness and Behavioral Support) for K-5 students with mild/moderate disabilities; STEPS (Structured Teaching, Educating Prepared Students) for pre-K to 12 students with moderate/severe disabilities; TBIC (Therapeutic Behavior Intervention Class) for K-12 students with behavioral and emotional needs; and the Bridges Program for students in grades 9-12 with severe emotional needs and other disabilities.
“We are excited for the 2019-2020 school year and are grateful for the opportunity to educate nearly 47,000 young people,” said Superintendent Kirsten M. Vital. “We look forward to continuing to make investments in their academic, social and emotional health by: successfully launching full-day kindergarten; growing our college and career pathways such as law, engineering, health and more; expanding our community partnership with Hoag Hospital to support parents on critical issues such as social media use, mental health and suicide; continuing our commitment to increase the social-emotional, behavior and academic support for all of our young people through our award-winning Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) programs and through our counselors at all school sites; unveiling solar energy and investing savings into classrooms.”
By Jessica Peralta