As kids head back to class, O.C. Department of Education leader shares thoughts on the 2023-24 school year

As kids head back to class, O.C. Department of Education leader shares thoughts on the 2023-24 school year
A student at Weaver Elementary School in Rosmoor on his first day of second grade. Photo: Nichole Pichardo, Los Alamitos USD.

It's officially back-to-school season in Orange County. Thousands of local students are heading back to campuses this week as the 2023-24 school year starts. Most of the 28 public school districts in O.C., as well as many charter schools, are welcoming new classes of transitional kindergartners all the way up to high school seniors this week.

Three school districts including Fountain Valley, Ocean View and Huntington Beach City won't start the school year until after Labor Day. California requires schools to provide 180 instructional days during the academic year, according to the Orange County Department of Education.

As we embark on the next school year, Spotlight Schools asked Ramon Miramontes, Ed.D., deputy superintendent of the OCDE, to share his thoughts on what's ahead for students, parents, and teachers. These are his responses sent via email.

OCDE's Dr. Miramontes surprises Laura Blackie with a 2024 Teacher of the Year Award in April at San Joaquin Elementary in the Saddleback Valley USD. Photo by Jeannette Andruss.

Spotlight Schools: What is the biggest thing you're looking forward to for the 2023-24 school year?

Dr. Ramon Miramontes:
What I look forward to the most is getting to witness the enthusiasm of students and parents on their first day. Regardless of how long you work in education, the joy of that moment never diminishes.

SS: What are some programs that the Orange County Department of Education offers that schools can access this upcoming school year that you think the public should be more aware of?

The Orange County Department of Education offers a wide range of opportunities and experiences for students to showcase their academic skills, build friendships and gain confidence. Some examples include the Orange County Academic Decathlon, National History Day and the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Mock Trial program, all of which promote deep engagement, critical thinking and camaraderie. In STEM, we have a number of popular offerings such as our award-winning Inside the Outdoors environmental education program and Science Olympiad. And there are a multitude of opportunities for students to showcase their talents in the arts.

A social media post from the OCDE's Inside the Outdoors program.

Our students are also working directly with industry leaders and receiving invaluable work-based learning experiences through OC Pathways and its network of education, business and community partners. These initiatives serve as catalysts for academic growth and personal development, ensuring that students in Orange County have access to a well-rounded education that nurtures their unique strengths and interests.

SS: Technology is advancing at a dizzying pace leaving some parents wondering if students are learning things that will still be relevant when they enter the labor force. What is your message to parents concerned that their children are prepared for the future?

In this era of rapid technological advancement, students must understand that their future careers and lives will be significantly influenced by technology. As you mentioned, the pace of change is dizzying. Young people need to be well-versed in how devices, applications and programs function while also striking a balance between work and family life.

At OCDE, we recognize the challenges and opportunities brought about by artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies. That’s why we are constantly developing and deploying new trainings and resources to help educators and families navigate what lies ahead. But a common thread is that our efforts continue to focus on college and career readiness as well as traditional life skills, which include emotional management, healthy relationships and responsible decision-making. All of these elements are critical for students to thrive in school and beyond.

SS: Standardized test scores will be released soon. Last year, while students at O.C.'s public schools outperformed California students as a whole, local students' scores still dropped when compared to pre-Covid testing. What do you think is important for the public to bear in mind when the 2023 test results are released?

It’s important to remember that assessment results represent a snapshot of what students have learned or can demonstrate at a particular moment. And the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges like increased absenteeism, which undoubtedly affected scores across the country. In California, strict state guidelines for returning to school after infections or exposures clearly contributed to higher absentee rates, impacting learning.

While assessment results are important, our primary goal is to ensure that students continue to grow academically year after year and develop into the best versions of themselves. In addition, we want to nurture their passions outside of standardized testing, whether in sports, music, art or just being a good friend to others. These non-measurable aspects are also contributors to academic and personal growth.

SS: In a recent article you stressed how important it is for parents to be involved in their student's education. Is there a program, school district, or campus that you think is excelling at connecting with families?

One exemplary model of family engagement was demonstrated by my former school district, Buena Park, under the leadership of Michelle Centeno, director of Curriculum and Instruction. The Buena Park School District prioritized open and transparent conversations to address the specific needs of parent partners. They provided support for navigating the school system, homework routines, understanding parental rights, advocating for children and strategies for family wellness.

I'm confident that other districts across the county offer similar opportunities, recognizing the power of collaboration between parents and educators for their children's success. OCDE also places a premium on family engagement and outreach, evidenced by the creation of The 101, a website that was launched specifically to unpack complex education issues, and the 10 Education Essentials course, which is a joint venture with the Orange County Business Council.

SS: Anything else you think is important for the public to know.

RM: Along with passionate educators, dedicated support staff and strong leadership, public schools benefit greatly from engaged families and communities. As our districts continue to forge strong relationships with parent groups like Parent Teacher Associations, District English Learner Advisory Committees, and boosters and foundations, our children's educational futures are in good hands.

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