O.C.’s best school districts of 2011 | Irvine Real Estate | Irvine Homes for Sale

by Robert Mack on February 23, 2011

in Buyers, Latest News, Sellers

When Marie and Thomas Pham’s twins turned four a couple of years ago, they began poring over school district testing results.

But they didn’t look near their hometown of Tempe, Ariz. — they studied communities in Orange County, Calif.

The Phams spent weeks researching schools in Tustin, Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos before packing up and heading straight to Irvine.

Irvine Unified School District’s top test scores across every campus at all grade levels made the district the best option, they said.

“Our No. 1 priority as a family was having our children go to the best possible schools,” Marie Pham said.

The family’s decision is backed by the Register’s 2011 Orange County’s Best Public Schools report, dominated by Irvine schools at every level.

Today, the Register recognizes the county’s best school districts, generating three sets of rankings one each for elementary, middle and high school instruction. (See our complete rankings and the data behind them.)

Consistent winners in each of the rankings include Irvine Unified, Los Alamitos Unified and Laguna Beach Unified.

The districts outperformed their peers countywide, posting average Academic Performance Index scores above 860 out of 1,000, performing nearly perfectly on No Child Left Behind goals and recording minimal rates of truancy and misconduct.

Measuring success

Orange County school districts follow a number of paths to success. Some have just a few thousand students; others have tens of thousands. Some cater to just elementary or secondary students; others take on all levels. Some focus on just part of one community; others stretch across a several diverse cities.

There is also no definitive format for high achievement, the Register found. Some districts large and small use their size as an advantage, while for others size is a handicap they work to overcome.

Here are other factors the Register found common among top districts:

  • The top five districts for each of the three instructional levels reported poverty rates under 20 percent and less than 18 percent English learners.
  • The top five districts for each level reported the county’s lowest suspension rates, about four for every 100 students.
  • More than two-thirds of all districts earned average API scores of 800 or higher, meeting or exceeding state academic standards.
  • The top 10 districts for high school instruction graduated at least half their students eligible for University of California and California State University schools.

For the bottom-ranked districts, demographic challenges clearly correlate to low quality. Districts that ranked in the bottom five of each instruction level had poverty and English learner rates higher than 50 percent.

Many lower-ranking districts also had higher instances of misconduct, lower levels of college-ready graduates and a higher rate of schools that failed to meet No Child Left Behind testing targets.

But officials from many of these districts said that despite struggles, they are moving in the right direction. They point to steady gains on state test scores and other measures to show they’re working hard to close the achievement gap.

Sizing it up

Irvine Unified, the county’s seventh-largest district with 27,000 students and 36 campuses, ranked as the best overall district for elementary and middle school instruction, and second for high school instruction.

District officials said their relatively large size allows them to vary programs and services among campuses.

For instance, all Irvine high schools offer about 15 to 20 Advanced Placement courses. But some high schools focus more on science and technology, while others provide more on arts and social sciences.

“There is more of a choice for parents as far as what they want for their children in a district with more than just one high school or middle school,” said parent Kim Lee-Phong.

Lee-Phong’s older son attends Irvine High because of its AP environmental sciences class. But her younger son, an eighth-grader at South Lake Middle School, plans to attend Woodbridge High for the school’s top tennis program.

Irvine Unified Superintendent Gwen Gross said the differences among schools are what contribute to overall district success.

“I see Irvine Unified as a collection of small communities that come together for a common purpose,” she said.

But being larger can also sink a district’s ranking. For some larger districts, quality of education varies widely among campuses, so district averages don’t show the range of success or failure.

Anaheim Union High, Fullerton Joint Union High and Santa Ana Unified all have at least seven high schools, and each district had one campus placing in the top three in the Register’s 2011 high school rankings Oxford Academy, Troy High and Middle College High, respectively. In fact, the three schools are often celebrated nationwide for their achievements.

But the districts also have several high schools that serve poor communities with high concentrations of English learners schools with much lower rankings.

Out of 15 high districts ranked for high school instruction, Fullerton came in at No. 10, Anaheim at No. 13 and Santa Ana at No. 14.

Anaheim Union schools on average improved API scores by 18 points over the past year. The progress can be attributed to an increase in intervention programs, stronger data-driven collaboration among teachers and other programs targeting struggling students, Karlak said.

Small districts

The success of small districts can rely even more heavily on neighborhood demographics. Those in affluent communities often hold inherent advantages, while districts in poor communities work even harder to overcome obstacles.

Laguna Beach Unified, the county’s second-smallest district with fewer than 3,000 students, was the No. 3-ranked elementary and middle school district in Orange County, and the No. 1 high school district.

The district, with its two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, has been largely immune to the state budget woes that have chipped away at public school funding. Laguna Beach schools rely primarily on local property taxes instead of state dollars and, unlike most other Orange County districts, Laguna Beach’s property taxes have been so strong over the past decade that the district has been able to stave off cuts.

Indeed, Laguna Beach paid teachers an average base salary of $93,120 in 2009-10 the highest in the county and 1.5 percent more than the previous year’s average. The district has had minimal job cuts compared with other districts.

“We have an attractive salary schedule, so we get more applicants than other districts, and therefore we have rigorous screening and can hire the best of the best,” Superintendent Sherine Smith said. “When Capo, Saddleback and Irvine were laying off teachers, we were able to hire some of them so we got to really take only the very best. … It’s not just attractive as far as money to work here, but it’s the community support, the leadership of the school board it all combines to creating a strong education system.”

Laguna Beach Unified has the second lowest-poverty rate countywide, 9.4 percent, and the fewest English learners, just 1.6 percent.

Laguna Beach also is the centerpiece of a community that is heavily invested in its success, including the dedication to help raise half a million dollars annually, Smith said.

In contrast, tiny Savanna School District enrolls fewer than 2,500 students, but ranks second-lowest for elementary instruction. The school draws students from low-income neighborhoods in western Anaheim, with three-fourths of students designated as low-income and about two-thirds still learning English.

Still, the district’s four elementary schools earned an average API similar schools score of 7, on a scale of 10 to 1, meaning they significantly outperform schools statewide with the most similar demographics.

Officials said the district’s small size allows for more collaboration, and builds a stronger sense of community and pride in schools.

Los Alamitos Unified, which has just six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school, also benefits from its relatively small enrollment. Even so, the district’s success is not a consequence of its population size, said Superintendent Gregory Franklin.

Los Alamitos was the Register’s No. 2-ranked elementary and middle district, and the No. 4-ranked high school district.

“We’re not successful because we’re small,” Franklin said. “We’re successful because we implement the initiatives we say we’re going to take on. It’s possible to engage every single teacher in the district by grade level.”

The success of that approach can be credited for luring Mike Maiter and his partner from New York City about five years ago when their four young children were ready to start school. The family chose the Los Alamitos area so their children could attend Weaver Elementary, Maiter said.

“For parents, there is nothing more paramount than the education of their children,” he said.

85% of the buyers I work with in Irvine are looking in this city because of the school districts. Having great schools is so important to many potential home owners and in Irvine buyers get a great combination of area, safety, and school districts!

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