The superintendent talks mental health, resources and the school year ahead.
The new school year is upon us. How do you see the 2022/23 school year playing out?
I think the last few years have presented us with valuable lessons about making predictions. Yet it is noteworthy that this will be the first new school year since 2019 that starts without strict requirements for face coverings or contact tracing, and that should bring us closer to a more traditional school experience for our students.
Moving forward, we must continue to be vigilant and mindful of the less visible impacts of the pandemic, and our schools are well-equipped to do this. As our students return, we know that many will be in need of accelerated learning, social-emotional interventions, counseling and access to wrap-around mental health services. School employees who have been on the front lines also need support, stability and grace. And of course our families need expanded learning opportunities, ongoing communication from their schools and districts, and access to resources.
What has the feedback been like from families and teachers about the previous school year?
Certainly the last school year posed extraordinary challenges, and no two experiences were exactly the same. Many of our students, families and school employees endured illness, disruption and personal loss on a scale that is unimaginable. Yet we have also heard incredible stories of resilience, innovation and achievement.
At Westminster High School, for example, four students who were concerned about declining bee colonies were recently honored for their plan to create a probiotic that can strengthen bees against insecticides. Earlier in the year, our own educators at OCDE set up a school for about 60 newly arrived Afghan children whose families were forced to flee their home country. In districts and charter schools across the county, our students earned county, state and national recognition for coming up with solutions to real-world problems, producing mental health videos, building highly innovative smartphone apps, designing electric vehicles and expressing themselves through the visual and performing arts. The examples are too numerous to list here, but I would also point out that two of California’s five Teachers of the Year for 2022 were from Orange County, as were four of our state’s top nine Classified School Employees of the Year.
Although this past school year has tested us in so many ways, I am beyond proud of our schools for continuing to provide exceptional experiences for students and opportunities for them to shine.
Are there any learning lessons that might be implemented this new school year?
Our school districts and charter schools are moving forward with so many innovative and engaging lessons at every level. To cite just one example, the Anaheim Union High School District under Superintendent Michael Matsuda is doing remarkable work to prepare students for careers in artificial intelligence and other high-level STEM fields, and that district has been widely recognized for building exemplary civic learning programs.
The Orange County Department of Education will continue to assist our districts and charter schools with an array of programs, workshops and supports. One initiative that we’re particularly excited about is OCDE’s partnership with leaders of the Acjachemen community and Vanguard University. Together, we are giving local educators a deeper understanding of Orange County’s first peoples with half-day history lessons and cultural tours in San Juan Capistrano. Four tours have been held so far at no cost, and additional sessions are planned for the fall.
We imagine mental health concerns are still at the forefront of school planning. Can you speak about this and the resources available to families?
Of course. In partnership with our districts, OCDE has made a commitment to supporting the mental and physical health and well-being of all students. Much of this work is embedded in training and technical assistance tied to California’s Multi-Tiered System of Support framework.
MTSS, which pre-dates the pandemic, can be thought of as a schoolwide commitment to a set of proven strategies that address academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs. Staff members collaborate and leverage data to provide a baseline of support for all students, additional assistance for some and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs. Starting in 2016, OCDE has been tasked with leading the statewide implementation of MTSS, which has been effective in all educational applications, including programs that boost literacy.
OCDE has also partnered with Children’s Health of Orange County to pilot a number of school-based WellSpace centers that allow students to decompress, reflect and practice their social-emotional coping skills in settings that are thoughtfully designed to be safe, calm and inclusive. Since 2021, about a dozen centers have opened at middle and high schools across Orange County, and more are in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, our OCDE staff has organized a number of resources and trainings for school employees and families who have experienced pandemic-related trauma, including workshops on how parents can support their children in times of crisis and when they may need additional services and support. In partnership with the Orange County Health Care Agency and local school districts, OCDE also hired seven regional mental health coordinators in 2021, creating a countywide network to strengthen mental health procedures and protocols. These are just a few examples of the work we are engaged in.
With mass shootings becoming a prominent issue, are districts making this a priority in planning for school security and mental health as well?
The pursuit of safer schools is and will always be a race that has no finish line. In California, every public school is required by law to annually update its Comprehensive School Safety Plan, which must include detailed responses to various scenarios. Along with supporting this work, our department collaborates with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement agencies on important topics, from cyberbullying to securing school facilities.
My office also works closely with the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center, or OCIAC, which leverages the reach and resources of the sheriff’s department, the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security to detect, investigate and prevent criminal and terrorist activity. In addition, OCDE and the sheriff’s department team up each summer to host a massive three-day Safe Schools Conference with the California Department of Education.
Are there any new projects or programs planned for the next school year to help families as we continue through this brave new world?
Absolutely. On the subject of mental health, we have begun working with clinical psychologist Dr. Martin Eaton and his organization, Heads Up Checkup, which has developed an app-based system for screening students for depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and other distressing signs. So far, we have seen very promising results with our own alternative education students. This is extremely critical and urgent work that we hope can be scaled up throughout the county.
Beyond that, we are currently in the process of mapping out programs, initiatives and objectives for the new school year. I would encourage your readers to visit our OCDE Newsroom or the OCDE website for the latest updates from the Orange County Department of Education.
What advice do you offer families for the upcoming school year?
I would encourage Orange County families to make use of the many resources that are available locally, particularly in the area of mental health. Talk to your principal or take a look at your school or district’s website. A number of school districts offer direct mental health services or can refer families for services. The county’s OC WarmLine is another free and confidential service that provides emotional support and resources to Orange County residents who call 714-991-6412. Additional resources can be found by visiting www.OCNavigator.org. Remember that we are in this together, as one Orange County.
By Jessica Peralta