Area high school teams prep for the 48th annual Orange County Academic Decathlon

SuperquizgymOver the next two Saturdays, more than 500 students from 43 local high schools will participate in the 48th annual Orange County Academic Decathlon, which concludes with the rousing Super Quiz Relay on Feb. 6.

Schools will once again be competing for top honors – and an invitation to represent Orange County at the California Academic Decathlon in March. Last year, Westminster High School won the county championship; Irvine’s Woodbridge High placed second but finished eighth overall at the state contest in Sacramento.

OC decathletes will kick off the communications portion of the county competition on Saturday, Jan. 30 by presenting prepared and impromptu speeches, participating in personal interviews and writing essays at Tustin High School.

One week later, they’ll take 30-minute multiple-choice tests in the subject areas of art, literature, mathematics, music, science and social science at Westminster High School. Each of these areas, with the exception of mathematics, will be based on the 2015-16 theme, “India.”

As in the past, the event culminates with some of the most compelling drama. The Super Quiz Relay is a perennial crowd favorite that resembles a quiz show and sounds like a sporting event, with parents and classmates boisterously cheering on their favorite squads from the sidelines. The relay, which is open to the public, will begin at 2:30 p.m. in the Westminster High School gymnasium, located at 14325 Goldenwest St. in Westminster.

Founded in 1968 by former Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Peterson, Academic Decathlons are 10-event scholastic contests staged at the county, state and national levels.

Nine-member teams compete for the highest scores on multiple-choice exams, speeches, interviews and essay assignments. Each team must include three “Honor” students (those with GPAs of 3.75 or above), three “Scholastic” students (GPAs of 3.00 to 3.74) and three “Varsity” students (GPAs of 2.99 or below). Competitions culminate with the Super Quiz Relay, which is held in front of a live audience.

On average, Orange County decathletes report spending 20 to 25 hours a week preparing for the Academic Decathlon. About 10 of those hours involve working with coaches and teammates at afterschool meetings; the remaining practice time is spent studying alone or with teammates outside of school.

Along with logging long hours, teamwork plays a crucial role in each team’s success. Students create tests and quizzes for one another, host scrimmages and analyze the prepared and impromptu speeches and interviews of their classmates. Students who are stronger at one academic subject often tutor and coach their teammates.

“Decathletes often refer to their decathlon team as their second family because of the countless hours spent together experiencing the rigors of competition,” says Kristin Rigby, an OCDE program specialist of academic events. “The constant engagement in communication, along with the ability to collaborate with others, are important skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. For each Orange County team, the camaraderie and commitment towards achieving one common goal shines brightly.”

This year’s Orange County Academic Decathlon is supported by the generous donations of community members and made possible by sponsors including NuVision Federal Credit Union, C2 Education, Del Taco LLC, the Orange County Register,, Teacher Created Materials and Aeries Software, Inc.

Top honors, medals and scholarships will be awarded at the OCAD Awards Ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16 in the Bill Medley Auditorium at Santa Ana High School.

For more information, go here, or contact Orange County Department of Education Program Specialist Kristin Rigby at (714) 966-4435 or

Marina High students tackle ultimate woodworking project with handcrafted viking ship (video)

In October, we read an intriguing story about an ambitious project over at Marina High School, home of the Vikings.

Students at the Huntington Beach campus, led by their enterprising wood shop teacher Bob Meade, were building a full-scale Viking ship — and planning to launch it in Huntington Harbour.

Naturally we had to check the thing out for ourselves.

The video above was edited by our own Greg Lammers, who was joined on the shoot by fellow OCDE Media Services team member Richard Rodriguez. Lammers, a Marina High graduate, pitched the assignment and plans to return for the ship’s maiden voyage in May.

Will the vessel prove itself seaworthy? We’ll find out this spring.

Is your school working on a cool project that you’d like to see featured on the OCDE Newsroom? Drop us an email at

Orange County student chosen to represent California in the U.S. Senate Youth Program

An Orange County School of the Arts student with aspirations of public service and a very impressive resume will represent California in the 54th annual United States Senate Youth Program.

ZenaMeyerSpeakingHeadshotZena Meyer of Irvine secured the prestigious appointment following a rigorous review process that narrowed a field of nominees to just two finalists and a pair of alternatives. In March, the high school junior will travel to Washington, D.C. to study the federal government as a guest of the U.S. Senate.

“I’m so incredibly grateful,” Zena, 16, told the OCDE Newsroom. “I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to learn new things through this experience.”

The United States Senate Youth Program annually offers this opportunity for civic-minded students to gain insight into the federal government and the interrelationship of the legislative, judicial and executive branches. Two student leaders are selected from each state, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity to receive a $5,000 scholarship and attend a one-week, all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capital.

In California, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson made the final selections based on a criteria that factored in academic achievement, interpersonal skills, leadership, community service and knowledge of American government and U.S. history.

Zena checks all of these boxes. Not only is she carrying a 4.5 grade-point-average at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, she’s her school’s Southern Empire Region Senator for the Southern California Junior State of America — the organization prepares high schoolers for involvement and leadership in a democratic society — as well as the chapter co-president. She’s also a contributor to the Los Angeles Times High School Insider and the community service coordinator for her school’s National Honor Society.

If that weren’t enough, she’s a volunteer at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a volunteer coach for the South Irvine Dolphins swim team and the director of outreach for the campus Girl Up Club.

Zena said she heard about USSYP through a friend who participated and had an “amazing experience.” After submitting her own application, she was informed of her selection during her school’s lunch period on Dec. 4.

“Its was really such an exciting experience,” Zena said. “I had a phone message from (State Superintendent) Tom Torlakson, and first I was like, ‘Who is that?’ Once I listened to the message, I sort of started doing this dissolving screaming thing in the middle of the hallway.”

Junior Emily Lu of Maria Carrillo High School in the Santa Rosa City School District will also represent California in the Senate Youth Program. This year’s alternates are Joseph Rowley, a senior at Glendora High School in the Glendora Unified School District, and Jade Wong, a senior at Glen A. Wilson High School in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.

“I’m proud of these remarkable student leaders and their strong commitment to academic excellence and significant participation in public service,” Torlakson said in this news release. “The extraordinary opportunity they have received will allow them to broaden their knowledge of the political process as they observe the workings of government firsthand.”

It would seem to be a perfect fit for Zena, who hopes to one day land a position in the field of public service. Ideally her career will focus on an issue she cares deeply about, like studying the climate.

“I really hope that I’ll be able to give back in some way,” she said. “I know that no matter whatever I end up doing, this amazing opportunity will help me achieve those goals.”

You can find more information on the U.S. Senate Youth Program here.

State Superintendent Torlakson lauds Laguna Beach as a leading digital district (video)

How’s this for recognition? State Superintendent Tom Torlakson recently cited the Laguna Beach Unified School District as one of three “leading digital districts” in California.

“These bright spots serve as lights of encouragement and guidance for our state,” Torlakson wrote in this letter to district leaders about technology and equity.

Laguna Beach, which was mentioned along with the Napa Valley and Riverside unified school districts, has been actively promoting the use of technology in its classrooms. In fact, the district piloted a Bring Your Own Device program at Laguna Beach High School in October 2014 that has since been expanded districtwide.

“Our teachers connect with students everyday within the classrooms,” said LBUSD Superintendent Sherine Smith, “but it was our turn to strengthen the connection with students. Using technology that they already use at home is important because students have learned how to best utilize their own devices to take ownership of their own learning.”

In addition to BYOD, Laguna Beach Unified carefully selects web-based software, including Haiku and Pear Deck, to ensure virtual learning environments are engaging in and out of classrooms. Moreover, the district’s 4Cs Learning Environments project was established to strengthen the link between the school environment and student learning.

“We found that after implementing the Common Core, teachers were creating collaborative lessons but were battling their classrooms,” said Chief Technology Officer Mike Morrison. “We have empowered our teachers to become researchers and testers for the concepts, and together we have designed truly remarkable learning spaces.”

Watch a flexible classroom space in action in the video above. And you can learn more about technology in Laguna Beach Unified by visiting the district’s award-winning website, specifically this page.

In the news: Flipped teaching, upgrades at Katella, promoting kindness and more

It’s the last Friday before Thanksgiving, and we’ve got a feast of local education stories you might have missed.

  • An Oxford Academy sophomore’s determination to share the importance of money management with his peers lands him an on-campus interview with California State Treasurer John Chiang.
  • A statewide campaign organized by the advocacy group Californians for Justice and its Student Voice project encourages educators to believe in all students’ ability to succeed.

Oral family history project aims to capture a generation of stories over Thanksgiving holiday

High school students have an opportunity to discover and share their life and family histories over the upcoming holiday via the ambitious Great Thanksgiving Listen initiative, sponsored by StoryCorps.

Through the project, students are encouraged to record a conversation with a grandparent, older relative or community member over the Thanksgiving holiday through the new StoryCorps app. The goal is to offer participants a chance to discover the history in their own families and lives while honoring their elders through the act of listening.

For those who haven’t heard of StoryCorps, here’s a bit of background. Launched in 2003, StoryCorps is a nonprofit oral history project that’s provided over 100,000 Americans a quiet booth to record interviews about their lives, which are then archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

What makes the Great Thanksgiving Listen different? Well, in one holiday weekend StoryCorps hopes to gather more interviews than it has in the 12 years since its founding. And for the first time, the oral history project will use technology to make it possible for anyone, anywhere to record an interview through the StoryCorps app.

StoryCorps app screen shotsThe free StoryCorps app walks users through the interview process, including preparing questions, finding a location, creating a high-quality recording, and uploading and sharing the conversation – with only the use of a mobile phone.

Participants will upload their recordings to the StoryCorps archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and can also share them through social media. This 2015 pilot is expected to result in an archive containing the single largest collection of human voices ever gathered.

The project is open to everyone, but this pilot is specially designed for students ages 13 and over. To help educators and students take part, StoryCorps has created a toolkit with instructions for students and guidance for teachers on how to merge the project into lessons that address state standards for social studies and history.

You can learn more and sign up for the Great Thanksgiving Listen here, and visit the website to listen to previous recorded conversations.

Three student projects from OC earn medals at National History Day Contest in Maryland

Frances & Michelle Kroll

We’ve got results today from the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest, which was held this week at the University of Maryland in College Park.

We’ll jump right to the good part: Of the seven California entries to earn medals, three were from schools in Orange County.

In the Junior Group Documentary category — “junior” in this case denotes the middle school division — first place honors went to Frances Kroll and Michelle Kroll of Sierra Vista Middle School in the Irvine Unified School District. (They’re pictured above.) Their documentary is titled “Henry Ford: Driving America Into the Future,” and their teacher was Jonathan Millers.

Sophia Burick, Kelly McDonald, Kate McKernanIn the Junior Group Website category, Sophia Burick, Kelly McDonald and Kate McKernan from Shorecliffs Middle School in the Capistrano Unified School District (and pictured to the right) took third place under the direction of teacher Fred Morris. Their site is called “Norman Borlaug: A Legacy of a Billion Lives.”

Finally, in the Junior Individual Exhibit category, Morgan Kopecky of Irvine Unified’s Lakeside Middle School placed third with her submission, “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Jon Pang was Morgan’s teacher.

Morgan KopeckyFor a complete rundown of this year’s winners, click here. 

More than 500,000 elementary, middle and high school students from the U.S. and beyond take part in National History Day competitions at the local, state and national levels each year, conducting extensive research based on a yearly theme before submitting complex projects in the form of papers, exhibits, performances, websites and documentaries. School competitions are held in the winter, followed by county and state contests.

In May, California’s National History Day event was held at William Jessup University in Rocklin, drawing more than 1,161 students from 25 counties — including 87 young historians from Orange County.

Fifteen of those students ultimately got the chance to bring their projects to the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest, which was held June 14 through June 18. This year’s theme was “Leadership and Legacy in History.”

Education advisor Fullan calls for collaboration and capacity-building at OCDE conference

Renowned education reform expert Michael Fullan says two things matter most in changing the culture of a school or district — the ability to shape and reshape quality ideas, and the ability to build capacity and ownership around those ideas.

Fullan4“If you have one without the other, you don’t get anything,” he said.

Fullan, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the author of more than 30 books, was the keynote speaker at OCDE’s “Equipping an Emerging Generation” conference at the Hyatt Regency Orange County on Tuesday, May 19. Hosted by county Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares and sponsored by SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the event also featured Trevor Packer, senior vice president for the College Board.

Fullan has advised policymakers around the world and is widely recognized for his role in transforming the school system in Ontario, Canada. In recent years, he’s been recruited to help bring similar reforms to California. Speaking to more than 400 educators and business leaders from Orange County and beyond, he said there’s a very real opportunity to bring meaningful change to schools in the golden state.

The key, according to Fullan, is to foster collaboration, allow educators a chance to develop, focus on a specific agenda and avoid being judgmental, particularly in the early stages. Talented teachers are a necessary ingredient, he said, but research indicates effective collaboration is an even bigger driver of high academic achievement.

“Collective efficacy of a group of teachers has more impact on student learning than individual things,” he said. “It makes sense when you put it together. This is why we work so much on changing the culture of schools and the culture of districts. That is really where the power lies.”

Student enthusiasm also plays a role, yet surveys show a consistent decline in enthusiasm with each passing grade level. To turn that around, Fullan said schools must strive to make learning engaging, ensure technology is accessible and easy to use, and offer lessons steeped in real-life problem-solving.

“This is fundamental to how learning should happen in the 21st century,” he said.

As for the role of principals, Fullan believes they should avoid becoming micromanagers and instead view themselves as the “lead learners” at their campuses, meaning they pursue professional growth as they build capacity.

“The main mark of a good leader, whether it’s a superintendent of a principal, is that they work five, six, seven years or so in a given jurisdiction, and they build collaborative cultures to the point where they, themselves, become dispensable,” he said.

PackerIn his presentation, Packer — he’s pictured to the right — said his role in developing and managing the Advanced Placement program for the College Board has prompted him to question whether tests appropriately reflect and reinforce instructional rigor. Too often, he said, school exams require memorization rather than thoughtful analysis. He cited an older AP biology test question that asked students to identify the term for “the creeping horizontal and subterranean stems of ferns.” (Google tells us the answer is “rhizomes.”)

“If teachers see lots of questions like this on tests, what do they do? They cram, they lecture, they cover as much material as possible because you don’t know what micro-fact, what minute piece of data, is going to show up on a test,” he said.

As part of a landmark redesign of AP courses and tests, Packer said the College Board worked with cognitive scientists in each discipline to determine what practices and skills would best indicate a student is prepared to be successful in college. As a result, newer questions blend content with an associated task. For example, students might be asked to create a diagram showing how nervous systems transmit information.

Similarly, an older version of the AP U.S. history exam asked this multiple-choice question: “Which of the following colonies required each community of 50 or more families to provide a teacher of reading and writing?”

“Do any of you know the answer to that?”, Packer rhetorically asked the audience. “Yeah, why should you, right? And yet we’re all functioning adults. Somehow we were all able to succeed in college without knowing this.”

Those types of questions send the message that teachers and students should focus on memorizing random facts, he said.

So a recent overhaul of the AP test in U.S. history doubled the number of questions that require student writing and replaced 80 multiple-choice questions with 55 prompts asking students to analyze primary and secondary sources. The new version, for example, might ask students to decide which of three dates marks the beginning of the United States as a world power — and explain why.

Packer said college should continue to be encouraged as a path for students who are at risk or on the bubble, pointing to studies that show higher education has a dramatic impact on their futures. He also noted that courses fostering critical-thinking have become somewhat politicized in recent years, and he called on educators to stand up for challenging coursework.

Dr. Mijares, the county superintendent, kicked off the conference by discussing recent budget news out of Sacramento, where proposition 98 revenues are expected to hit an all-time high of $68.4 billion.

“These are most certainly improved fiscal times,” he said. “However, with these resources comes enormous accountability. That’s why the Orange County Department of Education created the highest vision for our work: Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that local demographics are increasingly posing new challenges for educators. Mijares said half of Orange County’s students are eligible for subsidized lunches based on their families’ income levels, and 24 percent are English-learners who speak nearly 60 languages.

The superintendent encouraged attendees to read author Robert D. Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

“I love it that (Putnam) says ‘Our Kids,’” Mijares told attendees. “These aren’t somebody else’s kids; these are our kids. And he writes about the opportunity gap, because with the achievement gap comes an opportunity gap … and that gap is wholly tied to education. In fact, all major indices of social dysfunction are tied to education.”

Fifteen OC students invited to compete at the National History Day competition in Maryland

California will send 36 of its best National History Day projects to Maryland next month for a final showdown on the national stage, and eight of those entries will travel from schools right here in Orange County.

Also expected to make the trip: The 15 local students who created them.

NHD2 51515That much was settled at the state-level National History Day contest, which was held May 8 and May 9 at William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif. In all, more than 1,161 students from 25 counties competed, including 87 young historians from Orange County who brought 50 separate projects.

Each year, more than 500,000 elementary, middle and high school students from the U.S. and beyond participate in National History Day competitions at the local, state and national levels. They start by selecting a historical topic based on the year’s theme — it’s currently “Leadership and Legacy in History” — and conducting extensive research.

Some visit libraries and museums or seek out interviews to draw conclusions about their topics before presenting their findings in the form of a paper, an exhibit, a performance, a website or even a documentary. These are displayed and judged at school competitions in the winter, and county and state contests follow.

Now comes the culmination. The Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest will take place June 14 through June 18 at the University of Maryland at College Park. Here’s a list, by category, of the Orange County projects and students who have their tickets punched to compete.


Junior Individual Exhibit

  • Augustus Caesar: His Leadership Through an Empire and Legacy of its Fall
    Lakeside Middle School, Irvine Unified School District
    Alina Guo
  • Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    Lakeside Middle School, Irvine Unified School District
    Morgan Kopecky 

Junior Group Documentary

  • Henry Ford
    Sierra Vista Middle School, Irvine Unified School District
    Michelle Kroll and Frances Kroll

 Junior Individual Website

  • Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Lamp
    Jeffrey Trail Middle School, Irvine Unified School District
    Mulan Homo

Junior Group Website

  • Norman Borlaug: A Legacy of a Billion Lives Saved
    Shorecliffs Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District
    Kate McKernan, Kelly McDonald and Sophia Burick

Junior Historical Paper

  • Harry Truman: A Leadership and Legacy in the Truman Doctrine
    Sierra Vista Middle School, Irvine Unified School District
    Miranda Wu


Senior Individual Documentary

  • Leadership in the Diplomatic Acceptance of Differing Ideologies: The Legacy of the 1972 Nixon Visit to China
    Acaciawood School (a private school in Anahiem)
    Paul Hudson 

Senior Group Documentary

  • The Legacy of Ed Sullivan: Bringing the Civil Rights Movement into America’s Living Room
    Woodbridge High School, Irvine Unified School District
    Cullen Darius, Garrett Moore, Josh Morrison, Mitchell Cronin and Scott Armstrong

Inside the Outdoors living history field trips move learning out of the classroom (video)

We recently caught up with one of our Inside the Outdoor programs leading a field trip for third- and fourth-grade students at the historic Helena Modjeska House. This living history field trip is an example of the offerings from Inside the Outdoors that moves learning out of the classroom and into a hands-on environment through programs designed to support the curriculum for each grade level.

At the Helena Modjeska House, students have the opportunity to not only tour the historic home but also to use the tools and machines of the time, play parlor games, engage in common chores that children in the 1900s were expected to do, learn about beekeeping and explore the garden. Take a look at the video above, which shows students experiencing life in 1900 rural Orange County.

For more information and to register for hands-on living history and science programs, visit the Inside the outdoors website here.