Mijares: Research shows consistent attendance is critical to a student’s academic success

From the Desk of Dr. Al Mijares, Orange County Superintendent of Schools

This is a special time of year for educators.

While a number of Orange County schools welcomed students back in August, September is the month when all of our campuses are officially back in session, each bustling with a mix of anticipation and extraordinary promise.

Al MijaresThere are plenty of new faces, of course, as students advance grade levels, staff members change work sites and first-year educators embark on long and meaningful careers. We even have a handful of new superintendents in Orange County. Each brings stellar credentials and the passion to drive their respective districts to new heights.

Not coincidentally, September also happens to be Attendance Awareness Month, which is a good time to emphasize just how critically important it is for our students to avoid unnecessary absences throughout the year.

We know that children and teenagers can miss school for a variety of reasons. But chronic absenteeism continues to be alarmingly prevalent, particularly among low-income, homeless and transient student populations.

Our solutions should go beyond raising awareness. Schools and districts across the country must leverage proactive policies that effectively monitor trends, reward successes and build relationships with families. Through outreach and collaboration within our communities, we can remove some of the barriers that keep students off campus, including health issues and a lack of reliable transportation.

Getting off to a good start is key. According to Attendance Works, an initiative that promotes school attendance policies and practices, approximately half of all students who are absent just two to four days in September will miss nearly a month of school during the year. Unfortunately, an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million U.S. students will do just that, compromising their access to a quality education.

Additional research compiled by Attendance Works suggests frequent absences can strongly influence whether children will read proficiently by the end of the third grade. By grade six, poor attendance emerges as a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

By contrast, students can improve academically and better their chances of graduating if we can help them get to school on time each day.

With a new year comes new challenges, but it also presents new opportunities for greatness. In Orange County, we have the people and resources to take our game to the next level and to make good on our vision of leading the nation in college and career readiness and success.

Making sure our kids are in class and ready to learn is the first step.

Mijares: Communication is vital to the success of OCDE and Orange County schools

From the Desk of Dr. Al Mijares, Orange County Superintendent of Schools

Last year, a powerful new vision was unveiled to guide the work of the Orange County Department of Education: We declared that “Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success.”

This may be ambitious, but we are not alone in our pursuit. For our vision to become reality, it must continue to be embraced daily by teachers, students, parents, administrators, volunteers, community members, business leaders and elected officials. In other words, our success hinges on collaboration and engagement.

Al MijaresAs part of a strategic effort to strengthen both, OCDE is now in the process of enhancing and expanding its communications presence by leveraging the latest media platforms to deliver news and information that is accessible, relevant, compelling and credible.

You may already be familiar with one of our newer communications initiatives. Our staff has launched a website called the OCDE Newsroom that features education stories and videos about our local schools and programs. Recent Newsroom posts have included a breakdown of education buzzwords and acronyms, a list of strategies to keep young minds sharp over the summer and a feature on a former student from our deaf and hard of hearing program who became a college basketball coach.

The OCDE Newsroom is a place to learn more about our schools, as well as emerging trends in education, but it’s not the only way to engage with our department. I would also encourage you to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Now back to why this is so important.

OCDE supports 27 school districts serving more than 500,000 students in more than 600 schools. Needless to say, there is much to be gained by making students, educators and the community more aware of the vital programs and services available.

Specifically, we want all Orange County families to know of the resources that can contribute greatly to their children’s academic performance and wellbeing. We want all teachers, administrators and support staff to know of the invaluable professional development opportunities and support services that can take teaching and learning to the next level. We also want to expand our efforts to share best practices — particularly those that have proven their worth in high-achieving classrooms — while continuing to spotlight the incredible success stories that can motivate and inspire others.

All of this has the potential to contribute to positive student outcomes, which is our ultimate bottom line.

Communication and collaboration are so vital to our success that we’ve listed them, collectively, among OCDE’s current Strategic Priorities. These objectives are driving the work of our staff, and I would encourage you to learn more by visiting our website.

In the meantime, I would also invite you to take a look around the OCDE Newsroom — and to connect with us on social media.

Exciting things are happening in education in 2015. It’s time to spread the word.

Mijares: JPL internship exemplifies collaborative efforts to create college and career pathways

From the Desk of Dr. Al Mijares, Orange County Superintendent of Schools

Students often associate summer vacation with beaches, shopping malls and family getaways. But if you ask eight young men and women from Santa Ana how they’re spending their break, they’re more likely to talk about mechanical engineering, aerospace or computer programming.

Al MijaresThese students — all from Century, Godinez, Saddleback and Segerstrom high schools in the Santa Ana Unified School District — have secured highly exclusive paid summer internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

This is not merely a job-shadowing exercise. Over an eight-week stretch that concludes on Aug. 14, Paula Casian, Minhanh Chau, Denise Garcia, An Ho, Troyce Morales, Luis Terrones, Michelle Tran and Rosa Yanes will be working directly with science and engineering mentors, performing highly technical work to advance real JPL projects.

This opportunity was made possible thanks to community partners including OpTerra Energy Services and, of course, JPL. And it’s precisely the type of experience that was envisioned when the state Department of Education awarded our own OC Pathways initiative a $15 million grant to expand career pathways for students from kindergarten through college.

Led by the Orange County Department of Education and Saddleback College, OC Pathways comprises more than a dozen school districts, nine community colleges, two major universities, four regional occupational programs, three workforce investment boards, numerous community partners and more than 100 businesses — all focused on carving out clear pathways that will lead students of all backgrounds and academic levels to rewarding careers.

OC Pathways is one example of how OCDE is working to fulfill its vision that Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success. I would be remiss in not adding that it aligns nicely with our state’s recent efforts to promote critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.

Building capacity in these areas is critical for success in a world that has become far more complex and connected than at any time in our history. Suffice to say, the technological revolution that began a decade or so ago isn’t pausing for us to catch our breath, and our global competitors have no interest in waiting for the U.S. to lead the way.

The good news is California is reinvesting in our schools and, for the first time, channeling more resources to the students with the greatest needs. Moreover, our state has put standards in place that take learning to a substantially deeper level.

Our work is far from done, but the Orange County Department of Education and the school districts we serve are highly motivated and, indeed, well positioned to ensure students receive the training and preparation they’ll need to thrive in their lives and careers.

Eight students from Santa Ana are just the beginning.

Let’s take a look back at this year’s Orange County Teacher of the Year announcements (video)

Back on May 20, a big yellow bus carrying county Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, OCDE staff, media and sponsors paid a visit to five local schools. Their mission? To announce the Orange County Teachers of the Year for 2016.

As we previously reported, teachers Natalie Carias, Janis Leach, Lisa Moloney and Sharon Romeo all received the good news in their classrooms in front of cheering students, while Dr. Karah Street was surprised in the lobby of an administrative building on the campus of Saddleback College.

Our Media Services team was also on hand at each stop — with cameras rolling. To give you a little flavor of that day, we’ve put together a brief video that you can check out above. (Go ahead. We’ll wait.)

Of course there will be more celebrating in November during a special dinner at the Disneyland Hotel, where each of this year’s honorees are to receive a $15,000 prize from the Dr. James Hines Foundation, established by Orange County residents Bill and Sue Gross. Meanwhile, Disney sponsors handed out park passes and merchandise on the day of the announcements, and the SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union issued $500 checks to each recipient.

OCDE’s Fischer School offers a path to graduation, redemption for students like Erik


“Being here finally made me understand that it takes being deprived of something to realize how significant it is to you. And you begin to realize how much of it you actually had. I was searching for freedom and meaning when it was right before my eyes all along. It had always been my art.”

A young man named Erik spoke these words at a high school graduation ceremony nearly a year ago. The backdrop was not a sprawling stadium or cavernous auditorium, but rather a modest meeting room within the confines of Orange County Juvenile Hall.

He and about a dozen classmates collected their certificates in front of 120 family members, friends and guests that day in June 2014. But while Erik had graduated high school, he was not allowed to walk just yet. His sentence extended another 14 months.

Still, Erik had a high school diploma, and he had something even more important — people who believed in him.

He earned both as a student at the Otto A. Fischer School, one of four detention and treatment facilities run by the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS program. That acronym stands for Alternative, Community and Correctional Schools and Services.

Students arrive at Fischer under less than ideal circumstances. Most are performing far below their grade levels and missing credits. Many come from low-income families that lack basic resources.

But the school’s staff works hard to ensure Fischer isn’t a dead-end for troubled youth. They believe it should be a path to academic engagement, redemption and, ultimately, a better life for the 265 young people enrolled. That’s why in addition to offering standards-based lessons that align with traditional schools, educators at Fischer work closely with the probation department to teach character, problem-solving and anger management.

“That is what really makes us unique to any other facility in the nation,” says Kirk Anderson, Fischer’s program administrator. “We really have that strong bond with probation for our character-based programming. When a student leaves us, we want them better off socially, academically and emotionally. That’s really how we look at it as a staff. If they’ve improved in those areas, then we can say we’ve done our job.”

Which brings us back to Erik.

“I turned away from my art, and my life became something that I never wanted it to be. It was fake and misguided and lacked what I desired the most, freedom without the guilt and shame. I lost my art. I lost my shelter.”

Now 18, Erik — we’re only using his first name in this story — grew up in a rough neighborhood in Garden Grove. Though he was able to sidestep drugs and gangs, he says feelings of isolation in high school eventually spiraled into a psychological breakdown that led to an assault. His arrest and subsequent sentence carried him even deeper into darkness.

“It took three months to realize where I was and what I was doing,” he says. “When you’re in your room, there’s only one thing that happens — you just think about your past. You just see all the regrets that you had. It took me to see how much I didn’t like myself to see how much I needed to improve.”

Eventually, he channeled some of those feelings into drawing, a love from his childhood. Deputy Juvenile Correctional Officer Clarence Taylor was impressed enough by Erik’s detailed sketches of anime characters — as well as his work ethic and attitude — that he bought him a box of crayons and colored pencils and encouraged him to join an art therapy program started by a fellow correctional officer, Eric Burnell.

“He loved art but didn’t give himself to it,” Taylor says.

“That little box, it made me feel so happy,” Erik says. “I was in Juvenile Hall with, like, a little playkit. I just drew.”

“One of the concepts that I love about art is that it has no boundaries. The only limits are the ones that an artist places upon himself. Although this is an inspiring concept, it is not quite true when it comes to life.”

Over the next few months, Erik continued to create, wowing anyone who got a glimpse. Marilyn Monroe was the subject of one portrait. Another work, commissioned by his art teacher, features Nelson Mandela and images related to his quote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” That piece is currently displayed outside the office of Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares.

MandelaMeanwhile, Erik also poured himself into his schoolwork, landing a spot on Fischer’s honor roll more times than he can recall — or maybe more times than he’ll admit.

“He’s very modest,” Taylor says. “Sometimes it’s hard for him to have other people invest in him, but his achievements have really overwhelmed everyone.”

“I think the school system here is really awesome,” Erik says. “They help you, and since the student-teacher ratio is reduced, a lot of people get more help.”

With each success, his confidence seemed to swell. Taylor, Burnell, colleague Jeff Gallagher and the rest of the Unit Q team under the leadership of Supervising Correctional Officer Brian Cochran encouraged and rewarded Erik with special incentives, including a chaperoned furlough so he could attend his sister’s wedding. And when it came time to graduate, he was selected to speak. Dr. Jeff Hittenberger, OCDE’s chief academic officer, called it one of the best commencement speeches he’s ever heard.

Erik says he wasn’t nervous delivering his remarks, having once taken a drama course in school. Besides, he says, he was really speaking to just one person in the room.

“Mom, you are the reason I want to be someone in life. I owe my life to you, and I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything that you’ve done. You are the ground beneath my feet, and I know you will be there when I succeed.”

When the ceremony was over, Erik still had more than a year to serve. But his school and probation supporters encouraged him to continue his education. Thanks to a unique partnership with Coastline Community College, he was able to enroll in college courses from Juvenile Hall. He got a B in a political science class and is now tackling sociology and humanities.

“Looking back, I never even thought I would be in college,” he says now. “I never thought I would pass a class in college. It’s just, like, amazing.”

Erik will have the option of continuing higher education after he’s released in August, but he still hasn’t settled on a career path. He says he wants to be an animator, or maybe a tattoo artist, or possibly a fashion designer. Perhaps he’ll become a barber, or a chef, or even a makeup artist.

“I wasted all this time,” he says. “Even before I got locked up, I wasted all this time doing nothing. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.”

With the support of Fischer and the probation staff, Erik will have a chance to start a new chapter in a few months, and he’s intent to be the author this time.

Or maybe he prefers another metaphor, one from a graduation speech that still echoes through the corridors of Juvenile Hall.

“Life is like a ship that rocks against an ever-changing tide. And you, who are the commander of your ship, must endure and stay afloat. When you feel that you are stranded and you are sinking, remember that there is land waiting to be reached, and that true happiness can be found.”

John F. Dean, former Orange County superintendent of schools, dies at 89

John F. Dean, who served as Orange County superintendent of schools from 1991 through 2001 and led OCDE through the county’s 1994 bankruptcy, died last week at the age of 89.

Dr. John F. Dean headshotDuring his decade-spanning tenure as county superintendent, Dr. Dean was admired for his work in helping to create safe school environments with high achievement and low dropout rates. He advocated for funding to serve special education programs and supported the Alternative, Community, and Correctional Schools and Services program to include incarcerated students and students experiencing homelessness. Dr. Dean backed rigorous world-class standards for all students, promoting English language mastery and bringing technology to every school.

“Dr. Dean was an exceptionally kind-hearted and effective leader who guided the Orange County Department of Education through the dark days of the county bankruptcy and led us into the modern era of data-driven decision-making and accountability,” said Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares. “His passion for literacy and commitment to meeting the needs of each student has left a lasting impact on our schools and our county.”

Raised in Ontario, Calif., Dr. Dean earned a bachelor’s degree in education with an emphasis in English and journalism from the University of Southern California. He received a master’s degree in education, administration and curriculum from California State University, Long Beach, and a doctorate in educational administration from USC in 1966.

Dr. Dean began his career in 1950 as an elementary school teacher in Ontario. Three years later, he and his wife, Katherine, moved to Newport Beach, where he taught at Horace Ensign Intermediate School and Newport Grammar School before joining the administrative ranks. He spent five years as principal of Harbor View School in Corona del Mar and five years as the district’s director of curriculum.

After serving for a year as dean at Orange Coast College, he spent 21 years as a professor of education and chair of the Education Department at Whittier College. He left Whittier in 1991 when he was elected to his first term as Orange County’s superintendent of schools. Dr. Dean  was recognized with helping guide schools through the county’s 1994 bankruptcy crisis and was twice reelected to his post. After 50 years in education, he retired in April of 2001.

Dr,. Dean authored several books, including “Teaching in America,” “Writing Well: 60 Simply-Super Lessons to Motivate and Improve Students’ Writing” and “Games Make Spelling Fun: A Teaching Aid to Better Spelling.”

He was named a Distinguished Alumni in 1991 by Cal State Long Beach’s Graduate School of Education and was inducted into the California Reading Association Hall of Fame in 1989.

Dr. Dean was preceded in death by his daughter, Karol and is survived by his wife, Katherine, son Brian, four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and brother Jim.

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.”