The visionary public school leader discusses the challenges facing OC schools and the standout programs shaping their future
The new school year is always an exciting time and we can always expect plenty of changes.
To help walk us through it all, we posed some important questions to County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares, Ph.D., about local trends, innovative curriculum in schools and school safety, among many others.
POC: What are some trends we’ll be seeing in the 2019-2020 school year on a county level?
AM: Automation, artificial intelligence and other high-tech disruptions are dramatically reshaping how we think about work—and educational systems are adapting.
A local example is OC Pathways, an OCDE-led initiative that’s building career pathways in key industry sectors and creating work-based learning opportunities for students. Established in 2014, OC Pathways now includes every school district and community college in Orange County, along with ROPs, universities and industry partners. All of them are working together to build a regionalized vision for college and career readiness, one that combines rigorous academics with hands-on workforce training.
At the same time, schools are continuing to implement systems designed to meet the academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs of students, including the Multi-Tiered System of Support framework, or MTSS.
Another trend worth noting is declining enrollment. The total number of Orange County students has dropped steadily in recent years, impacting nearly every district.
Scores of districts up and down California are facing similar declines, which have a direct impact on revenue. In Orange County and elsewhere, the cost of living has skyrocketed, squeezing out younger families.
For the 2018-19 school year, 478,823 students were enrolled in our county’s public schools, including charter schools. That’s down from 497,116 students in 2014-15. Orange County schools have lost a combined 36,641 students since the 2003-04 school year, when enrollment was at a record high.
POC: Among the 28 school districts in the county, what are some highlights in innovative curriculum or programs that stand out?
AM: There are far too many standout programs in our county to list, but here are some examples:
Lake View Elementary School in the Ocean View School District has adopted a STEAM focus, embracing new technologies and flexible learning spaces while adding engineering, robotics and arts labs.
The Anaheim Elementary School District plans to offer dual-language immersion programs at all 23 of its campuses starting in August. Teaching in two languages has been gaining momentum nationally and in Southern California, with dozens of programs popping up across Orange County.
At Santa Ana’s Valley High School, the High School Inc. program offers academies aligned with industries such as culinary arts, hospitality and healthcare. The idea is to combine career technical education with traditional subjects like English, math and social studies.
Eight acres of farmland adjacent to Westminster High School have been rebranded as The Giving Farm as part of a unique initiative that’s providing students with hands-on agricultural lessons—while cultivating fresh produce for families in need.
Edison High School in the Huntington Beach Union High School District boasts an Innovation Lab that encourages students to conduct real-world research in biology, chemistry, physics and robotics.
Canyon High School in the Orange Unified School District offers popular aviation courses that pair flight lessons with science, technology, engineering and math instruction.
Esperanza High School’s Medical Sciences Academy prepares students for a variety of medical careers and assists with their transition to college, as well as employment and industry certification.
POC: What do you want to see accomplished in this school year?
AM: We continue to build academic momentum in support of our vision that “Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success,” and this is reflected in several metrics, including the rate of graduates who have met UC and CSU admissions requirements. But in order to reach our potential as a county, it is critical that we engage our most vulnerable populations, cultivating traits such as resilience, grit and a growth mindset. This starts with understanding the stories, needs and traumas of those who walk through our doors.
OCDE is well-positioned to lead this work, as we have long prioritized educating the whole child in inclusive learning environments. In 2016, we were tapped by the state to help districts implement the California Multi-Tiered System of Support framework, known as MTSS. Based on the theme “All Means All,” MTSS aligns new and existing strategies to meet students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs, providing core supports for all, additional assistance for some and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs.
Our districts and schools are doing extraordinary work promoting the five Cs of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and character. These are essential building-blocks for increasingly complex educational systems and careers. But these lessons must be part of a larger framework that helps educators address the unique needs of each student, including past traumas and present realities.
POC: Is alternative education, such as charter schools, having any impact on school districts and public schools? How so?
AM: I think it’s important to differentiate between charter schools and alternative education programs, which typically serve at-risk youth or students who perform better in non-traditional academic settings.
A charter school is a public school with specific goals and operating procedures detailed in an agreement, or charter, between the authorizing board—that’s usually a local school district board or a county board of education—and the charter operator. Charter schools receive state funding and are not private schools. They are tuition-free, non-sectarian and open to any student, regardless of his or her place of residence.
According to data from the California Department of Education, there were 31 charter schools in Orange County in 2018-19, serving 18,893 students. Many were authorized by their local districts; 14 have been approved by the five-member Orange County Board of Education.
While advocates tout charter schools as labs for innovative practices and a benefit to school choice, some critics have expressed concern that their rapid growth diverts funding from traditional public schools. At the request of Governor [Gavin] Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond recently drafted a set of recommendations after convening a panel to examine the impacts of rapid charter school growth.
POC: How are the schools handling the need for immunization?
AM: OCDE staff are working with local districts to keep them informed of the laws related to immunization requirements, including the changes that went into effect July 1.
The results have been very encouraging. The percent of incoming kindergarteners with up-to-date immunizations in Orange County was 95.7 percent in 2017-18, a slight edge over the state’s rate of 95.5 percent.
Our numbers have been rising steadily since the 2013-14 school year, when the rate for Orange County was 88.7 percent. We believe these increases can be attributed to changes in the law, along with the collaborative efforts of OCDE, the Orange County Health Care Agency and local districts to raise awareness.
POC: What is being done to assure families that children are safe when at school?
AM: Schools in California are required by law to update their Comprehensive Safe School Plans each year. These outline each site’s planned responses to various crises and are routinely reinforced through site-level drills including evacuations and shelter-in-place exercises.
The strategies that schools employ to promote safety will vary by campus and are ultimately up to each district’s school board and superintendent, in partnership with teachers, staff, students and communities. But OCDE has long supported this work with trainings and workshops throughout the year, covering an array of topics including safety plans, earthquake preparedness, behavioral threat assessments, resilience strategies and active-shooter behavioral indicators.
Our department also works closely with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement agencies to have discussions on everything from cyberbullying to securing school facilities. Additionally, OCDE and the sheriff’s department team up every summer to host the Safe Schools Conference. This three-day event brings together more than 500 educators and law enforcement representatives from throughout the state to discuss issues and trends related to campus violence, bullying, social media, human trafficking, gangs and substance abuse.
POC: Are there specific countywide initiatives to address bullying?
AM: Yes. OCDE promotes positive school climates and anti-bullying through such initiatives as the Multi-Tiered System of Support framework, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports—often referred to as PBIS— and our One Billion Acts of Kindness campaign, which was launched in 2016 to promote character and amplify civility in our communities. OCDE also promotes campus safety with trainings and workshops throughout the year, covering bullying, school safety plans, earthquake preparedness, behavioral threat assessments, resilience strategies and more.
POC: Are you aware of any trends in Orange County regarding nutritious school lunch options?
AM: More of our districts are participating in programs that promote the procurement and sourcing of local foods and produce, including the California Thursdays and Farm to School initiatives. Some districts are integrating more scratch-cooking despite their central kitchen limitations, and there is a trend towards serving less processed foods in favor of plant-based options that are more nutrient-dense for students, while also being environmentally sustainable.
Through the Healthy Schools Initiative, OCDE provides training, technical assistance and resources to build our districts’ capacities to create strong wellness policies and our schools’ capacities to implement those policies by putting into place practices that promote the health of our students, staff and families. Finally, there has been a county-wide effort to reduce school-based food waste, and many districts are partnering with community agencies that recover unwanted food for distribution to local pantries that serve individuals who face food insecurity.
POC: Any advice for new families to Orange County or families changing schools or districts?
AM: I encourage families that are new to Orange County or new to their schools to get to know their children’s teachers, school counselors and administrators—and the role each plays in supporting their child’s success.
It’s also helpful to review the student and parent handbook for each school community. Finally, many cities offer recreational activities available for students at a low cost. These present opportunities for children to connect with their neighborhood peers, which can ease the transition to a new school.
By Jessica Peralta