Orange County Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of Instructional Programs talks education challenges, successes and the new school year.
Parenting OC: How would you describe the current state of Orange County education?
Ramon Miramontes: I would characterize the current state of Orange County education as highly focused on implementing effective routines and practices that prioritize student learning.
We have abundant data to show that Orange County schools are yielding positive outcomes. Our students consistently outperform their state counterparts and neighboring counties on assessments, and we have a graduation rate that exceeds 92 percent and continues to climb. The reasons for these successes are not a mystery. We have great teaching, strong family engagement and effective leadership at the district level.
At the same time, we know there’s so much more work to be done, and educational leaders in our county are committed to a model of continuous improvement. Every day, they’re focused on how to produce better outcomes for students, which in turn fortifies our regional workforce.
POC: How far has education come since 2020, and what improvements were made in the 2022-23 school year?
RM: Like every aspect of our lives, education is advancing at an exponential pace, informed by data-driven strategies for teaching and learning. In the past few years, our schools and classrooms have expanded rich and powerful instructional opportunities, providing multiple modes of engagement and representations of ideas, along with avenues for student action and expression.
Educators have prioritized routines and procedures that create predictability and a sense of security for students. At the same time, our schools are providing engaging content and showing that they value the interests, experiences and knowledge that each student brings to the classroom. As simple as it sounds, our aim is to continue building on what works best for students.
Now we’re in an era of artificial intelligence and automation that will bring unseen challenges and opportunities for students and educators, and so our systems and our efforts to promote career readiness must be future-proof.
POC: How do you see the 2023-24 school year coming together?
RM: Our primary focus is on teaching and learning, embracing best practices for college and career readiness — and we’re no longer just talking about kindergarten through high school.
With the expansion of district preschool programs, and now extending to include workforce development at the community college level, we have an opportunity to serve students for 18 years with cohesive systems that align with their interests and aptitudes, as well as the needs of employers. By leveraging new technologies and innovations, including AI, we can further enhance learning and prepare students for high-paying, high-demand jobs. Orange County, with its hub of tech companies and institutions like UC Irvine, has a unique opportunity to lead in this area.
Working with parents as partners is key. The engagement and support of families has always been a necessary ingredient for successful schools, and that includes opportunities to volunteer in classrooms, chaperone events and participate in trainings. We want to continue to encourage meaningful collaboration and emphasize the value and importance of their involvement.
POC: Are there any areas where we’ll be seeing some changes?
RM: We expect advancements in technology, particularly artificial intelligence, to have a significant impact on education, and we aim to stay ahead of the curve. It’s like that quote often attributed to Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Our team at the Orange County Department of Education is constantly developing new trainings and resources to help educators and families navigate what comes next.
At the same time, we want to continue to promote traditional life skills that we know are necessary for students to thrive in school, work and life. These skills include managing our own emotions, developing healthy relationships with others and making responsible decisions.
POC: Mental health is still a huge issue. How has that evolved in OC and what can we expect in the new school year?
RM: This goes back to parent and community involvement, and it has been very encouraging to see so many families, school districts and educational partners coming together to support the health and well-being of our students.
This year, OCDE introduced a strategic vision called “Empowering Students to Thrive in Education, Career and Life” that was supported by more than two dozen Orange County school district superintendents. This 50-page report outlined a comprehensive overview of shared objectives for the health, well-being and success of students, along with strategic priorities and indicators to measure progress. It also documented effective partnerships and supports that are already contributing to student thriving, which we define as flourishing physically, socially, emotionally and academically. We know that these areas are foundational to teaching and learning.
POC: The nation’s report card recently released and scores have dipped, including in California. How is this being addressed in Orange County?
RM: One of our main functions as a county office of education is to provide training and technical assistance to school districts, especially where students — or specific groups of students — are underperforming. Our staff works closely with educators and administrators to identify areas for improvement and implement evidence-based strategies that can positively impact student performance and outcomes. That is work that we embrace, because assessment scores are more than just numbers on a computer screen — they indicate how well our students are mastering key skills and content.
In looking at some of the underlying conditions, it’s clear that some assessment results were impacted by increased absenteeism during the pandemic. Strict state requirements for returning to school following an infection or exposure were in place to ensure student safety and to prevent community outbreaks. While these guidelines were well intentioned, there is no question they led to significant increases in absenteeism. And we know that when students are not in school, their learning suffers.
OCDE is committed to working collaboratively with schools, districts, families and other stakeholders to address absenteeism and other challenges. We are focused on finding innovative solutions to boost attendance, engage our students and ensure all have access to a high-quality education.
POC: Are there any recent accomplishments in OC education you’d like to highlight?
RM: With approximately 600 schools in Orange County, the achievements we see throughout our education community could fill the pages of this magazine. One success story that will pay extraordinary dividends is how our students are working directly with industry leaders for invaluable work-based learning experiences through OC Pathways and its network of education, business and community partners. OC Pathways is an ODCE-led initiative that makes it possible for our students to pursue industry certifications, earn early college credit opportunities, and participate in internships and apprenticeships while taking rigorous coursework.
In districts and charter schools across the county, our students are also earning county, state and national recognition for devising solutions to real-world problems. They’re building innovative smartphone apps, producing mental health videos, designing electric vehicles and expressing themselves through the visual and performing arts. The list goes on and on.
I would be remiss in not mentioning that over the last four years, Orange County has produced six California Teachers of the Year. In addition, nine of the state’s last 27 Classified School Employees of the Year have worked at schools or districts in Orange County.
POC: What are the biggest challenges in education right now?
RM: The educational challenges we are seeing in Orange County are not dissimilar from the conditions impacting schools across the country. The pandemic universally disrupted learning routines, widened achievement gaps, and hindered access to education and support services. Heightened mental health concerns and teacher shortages further compound our challenges.
But we are clear-eyed about what needs to be done. Collaborative efforts to accelerate learning, bridge the technology divide, establish career pathways, prioritize mental health support and recruit qualified educators are critical steps toward overcoming the challenges we face, and Orange County is poised to lead the way.
POC: How are OC educators rising to the ever-changing challenges they face?
RM: For most — if not all — teachers, this is their calling. This is what they do. Our top educators rise to the challenges they face with a sense of purpose and commitment. Like firefighters responding to a fire, teachers rely on their training and expertise to push through challenging moments. They adapt, innovate and seek ongoing professional development to navigate complexities and provide the best possible education. That’s who they are.
By Jessica Peralta