Tommy is comparing the speed of sound across different states of matter: wood, air, and water. Fifty years ago, chances were the physics experiment took place in a public or private classroom. Today, the science lesson could also be unfolding in a charter or homeschool setting. Just as we now communicate unfettered by the bounds of physical space, so have our cyber powers reshaped the world of education. Learning no longer depends on brick-and-mortar resources. Add to this freedom the power of choice and community, and we have a rich new landscape of schooling in Southern California.
If your child has manipulated cadaver images on a huge eMachine, he probably attends Esperanza High School in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. Esperanza is one of only two schools in California that have this technology, enabling learners to go through the skeletal system, disassemble organs, and perform surgery. The MacBook has replaced textbooks at Crossroads Christian High School in Corona with its hallmark 21st Century Collaborative learning model. Students solve problems in small groups, building teamwork and communication skills, in the vanguard of the latest Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) movement in American education.
The future is here in our best schools where technology integrated into curricula is now a given. The highest-achieving schools graduate, on average, 95 percent of their students who head off to college or enter a career they prepared for in school. All of the institutions run vibrant programs in sports and the arts. Administrators and teachers also care deeply for the whole child. Here is a spotlight on the distinctives of some of our local districts, academies, and networks, as well as the secrets to their success.
For the past hundred years, public schools have been the leading purveyors of learning. With 54,000 students in 50 schools, Corona-Norco Unified School District remains the largest Inland Empire school entity. Despite the wide spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic levels in its classrooms, the district has managed to close the achievement gap. Superintendent Dr. Michael Lin shares, “We track achievement patterns in real time. Teachers can not only do a trend analysis on scores, but chase down Ds and Fs midsemester.” At CNUSD, where education is more than academics, the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee is one way that Administration and the Teachers’ Union strengthen relationships. Volunteer teachers meet with members of the Cabinet to ask questions and provide feedback on policy and event updates.
Relationships are also important at Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. Superintendent Dr. Greg Plutko seeks “To create belonging spaces, because when students, dedicated teachers, and classified staff members believe they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, they always achieve at high levels.” Tied to his aim for student well-being, Baseline Protocol Concussion Testing will serve every athlete this year. Through software similar to that used in the NFL, student athletes perform functions within a given timeframe to produce a baseline wellness marker. When they’re retested after a trauma that may have impacted cognition, the comparison will help physicians see when the student may resume learning.
As if this isn’t thoughtful enough, how about therapy dogs on campus? Trained for comfort, they’ve turned up at the wellness center of South Pointe Middle School, as well as Walnut High and Diamond Bar High Schools in Walnut Valley Unified School District. The full-time centers allow self-referred students to process challenges alongside peers before connecting with a campus psychologist. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Jordan says, “We’re buying the latest edition of books, training teachers, and putting technology in their hands, but we want to raise up kids who can deal with failure as well as success.”
In Chino Valley, it was not by accident that Rolling Ridge Elementary earned the California Distinguished School award. Dedicated teachers stay after school and go in on weekends. Parents volunteer in the classrooms and rally in fundraising throughout the year to ensure their kids have every necessary resource. We know the best machines can’t replace the concerted labor of people who put in the time, so schools like Don Antonio Lugo High in Chino reap the benefits from such conscious sowing. Its agriculture program combines the study of the environment, technology, animal medicine, agriscience, and agrimedicine in holistic innovation.
The teacher posts “Which equation shows that 8 is a factor of 40?” on the Promethean board up at the front. The kids select their answer using the ActivExpression remote and – voilà – they see on the board how many of them picked each response. But that same day, the children will be practicing social graces in Cotillion. Heritage Oak Private School in Yorba Linda attracts families from 36 cities who make the drive for the individual attention their children receive. The outstanding 4th-8th grade music program has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. But the Blue Ribbon School’s signature lies under its character education in which virtues like respect and responsibility are woven into daily lessons. Heritage Oak extends weekly academic and enrichment summer camps to its families and the public.
In educating the whole child, St. Francis of Assisi School in Yorba Linda is passionate about nurturing values grounded in the Catholic faith. Socially diverse, the school also opens its doors to families outside the faith. Within its diversity, St. Francis has managed to build a strong sense of community. With an expected turnout of about 1000 participants on October 4, alumni, former staff, parents, and students will celebrate Mass on the grounds with the Bishop of the Orange County Diocese to mark the school’s 20th anniversary.
Among the 24 elementary-middle schools in the San Bernardino Diocese, St. Edward School in Corona sits conveniently off the 91, able to serve families from Riverside and Orange Counties and the north. St. Edward limits class size to about 25 and provides one-to-one and small group support for struggling learners. Established in 1947, St. Edward is the oldest private school in Corona with teachers who’ve been there 35 years, along with parents who were once students. Community events such as restaurant gatherings, the spring carnival, and barbeques at the Quad highlight family life.
To develop the Christian worldview in all aspects of student life, Crossroads Christian Schools in Corona integrate Biblical teaching in their academically robust programs from preschool to high school. Bible verses engraved on the large stair steps students climb every morning make the school hard ground for self-centered behavior and bullying. High school students in every grade are required to partake in local to global community outreach. Last year, upperclassmen did ministry in the Palestine area of Israel.
The architecture of learning takes on a whole different design with charter schools. Over three million students are with charters in the country – schools that draw on public funds but are run privately. Behind the scenes, it means community members establish schools under contract with a sponsor besides a central school board. However, for families at the front door, charters amount to choice, not only for the ability to select their public school but also for the learning model options.
The hot springs of cultural innovation, California had 1,275 charter schools last year, more than any other state. With flexibility in teaching practices, curriculum, and staffing, these schools can take on a range of forms from brick-and-mortar to virtual and everything in-between. But the ones that have mushroomed in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties serve two main groups.
The first provides the state Common Core curriculum and enrichment services for families that want the public program in a more intimate setting or right at home. California Connections Academy is one such school that enabled figure skater Mirai Nagasu to study around her Olympic goals. Pivot and Opportunities for Learning serve virtual learners. School doesn’t have to mean 45 minutes in traffic. If your child would like to study alongside a teacher and fellow students with the freedom to keep up from the road or home, Scale Academy with its hybrid learning model will allow them to stay connected. Its local centers feature a specialty enrichment program in sports or the performing arts.
The other type of charter school supports home educators with funding for self-selected resources. Dehesa, Sage Oak, River Springs, Excel, Sky Mountain, and Julian are just some of the charters that pay for learning supplies, state-approved curriculum, classes, and field trips. Families are assigned a teacher who assists with instruction and records and collects student work samples monthly, either in person or virtually. Inspire, Valiant Preparatory, and National University Academy are among the highest-paying charters, but schools differ in their terms and provisions. Gorman Learning Center supplies curriculum from its 10,000-square-foot warehouse in addition to the funds.
Just a generation ago, homeschoolers were looked upon as citizens of a brave new world. Observers forgot that parents were the principal teachers of their children for much of human time. Today, about two million children homeschool across the country, with California again at the forefront. Some parents seek to maintain primary influence over their children’s development. Many want their kids to have a holistic learning environment where family, academics, and life merge seamlessly. Others are simply glad to take advantage of the freedom from the four walls of a classroom and its requirements.
Independent homeschoolers shy from both government oversight and assistance. They satisfy the minimum state mandates, filing the annual affidavit, and use whatever curriculum they please, paying their own way. Charter families come under testing obligations and stay accountable to a teacher in exchange for instructional provisions. PSPs (Private School Satellite Programs) are networks that function like schools, not only handling records but in some cases receiving and grading student work, as well as supplying curriculum and syllabi. Western Christian is a flourishing PSP with buildings in Chino Hills, Pomona, and Glendora, offering middle and high school classes. Though it doesn’t provide instruction, Christian Heritage in Corona helps with records and avails guidance counselors, an array of sports options, and prom.
Fewer families today are cobbling together their own curriculum with do-it-yourself resolve. In the global marketplace, they have access to a dizzying array of resources and are outsourcing much of the teaching in design-it-yourself fashion, choosing instructors and classes around their kids’ needs and family schedule. Among the most ambitious national homeschool programs, Classical Conversations has seen a proliferation of communities in the area. From a tender age, students swallow a prodigious body of knowledge in seven disciplines before moving on to critical thinking seminars and translating original works of Latin in the upper grades.
Biola University’s Youth Academics classes in Yorba Linda are a popular resource for homeschoolers. On seven sites in Orange and Riverside Counties, HomeSchool Campus affords a spectrum of classes for all homeschool families through instructors who are charter vendors. In and outside HSC, SoCal STEM ensures students keep on the latest track in the collaborative math and sciences, along with robotics and video game design.
In the performing arts, the community music school Kids Rock Free in Corona provides private and group lessons, with its many bands performing in various venues throughout the year. Songwriting instruction is a special feature of Rockstars of Tomorrow in Norco. Orange Coast Musical Arts has opened its doors to students from all sectors, with its instrumental and vocal lessons after school. OCMA is the only homeschool marching band that competes against high school bands in field show tournaments and parades. Inland Empire Musical Arts serves homeschool students during the day and children from the community in the afternoons. Through the Young Musicians Program that has joined hands with California Baptist University, IEMA High School students have opportunities to start accruing scholarship funds toward university attendance. In addition, the CBU Youth Acting Academy together with IEMA run workshops in musical theatre and creative drama.
Distinct communities have also sprung up, enabling home educators to connect with families by race, faith, and locale: African American Homeschoolers of Southern California, Jewish Homeschoolers of Orange County, and Yorba Linda Homeschool Meetup, to name just a few. Over 12 years old, the Southern California Catholic Home Educators group has burgeoned, without room in last year’s graduation halls, so that its Orange County branch became independent. Like the Catholics, the Muslim Homeschool Network forms co-ops in which parents run classes and faith-based events. The Catholic Homeschool Conference, Christian Home Educators Association Conference, and Great Homeschool Convention are held in the summer. The California Homeschool Network expo runs in September. Parents are equipped and inspired in training seminars, and meet curriculum and service vendors.
The walls that define space and the roads that create distance no longer dictate where we can teach, learn, or enjoy community. Nor are the lines that have formed between groups stone boundaries. Communities overlap, and families can weave in and out of the different schooling options at various seasons in their kids’ development. We might pause to take another look at our kids’ journey. What are your goals for your kids this year? The top three things you hope for them at the end of their 12-year passage? Do you feel safer fitting the learner into a curriculum or freer the other way around? Were your children busy just getting through assignments last year, or did they enjoy making discoveries and meeting challenges in the process? Were the instructional approach and environment compatible with your kids’ learning style? Have your children ever been moved by the human drama we call history or delighted in the wonders of science? If not, why not?
Computers sitting in the room don’t automatically equate to a great curriculum – it’s how they’re used and whether they streamline learning and foster thinking. Are the programs learner-friendly? Are communications from teacher to student clear? (All-important in the cyberschool.) Do your children love learning? Are they developing character and relational skills alongside friends and mentors? It is, after all, about who we’ve become and the relationships we take with us, more than any battle date in history or law of physics.
Diana Ha’s work has appeared in Home School Enrichment magazine, New York’s Emerging Writers anthology, and the 2017 San Diego Poetry Annual. Diana will also speak at the California Homeschool Network Expo in September. She gives private writing lessons and can be reached at holisticwayfarer.com.