In Santa Ana, new USC high school aims high
Most of the students in the college prep school’s first freshman class come from the local community — and they’re feeling the faculty’s high expectations
By Ross Brenneman
It’s been just over a year since Evelyn Castro was hired to be principal of a school that didn’t yet exist.
But two weeks into the school year, strolling the hallway of the newly opened USC College Prep, Santa Ana Campus, Castro is already beaming with pride.
“This is like a dream come true,” she said.
USC College Prep, Santa Ana Campus is the third school to open under the banner of the Ednovate charter management organization, founded by the USC Rossier School of Education in 2012, and the first to exist outside of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school occupies a temporary space within the Newsong Community Church, but the faculty and staff are already feeling at home while building a school culture.
“During my fourth year of teaching, I remember telling my students then that my dream is to open up a school because you can really shape the type of experience you provide students,” Castro said. “Now this is a reality. And in my mind, I just want to make sure that I use that power in a way that’s always student-centered.”
Building a staff and a culture
Most of the 120-plus students in Santa Ana’s first freshman class come from the local community and qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Ninety-five percent of the students are Latino, and many are English-language learners. Like students at the other Ednovate high schools — USC Hybrid High School and USC East College Prep — many would be first-generation college-goers.
The opportunity to enter higher education resonates with the school’s leadership. Ednovate CEO Oliver Sicat ’01 and board chair and USC Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher are both first-generation college students.
“It was truly special to be able to see the first senior class of USC Hybrid High graduate in June and get accepted to college,” Gallagher said. “Being able to help even more students have that opportunity, that’s really important to us.”
And for Sicat, there’s even more of a vested interest: This is his hometown.
“Over 40 years ago, my mother’s family of nine immigrated to Santa Ana to start their American Dream,” he said. “We are thrilled that in one generation, we can give back to the city that welcomed us into the United States.”
Many staples of the other Ednovate schools are already present, including personalized learning, up-to-date technology, benchmarking assessments and rigorous course offerings.
The high expectations are present, too.
“It’s important for us that the students understand we have these ambitious goals for them because we care about their future,” said Fonda Held, the school’s assistant principal.
The students feel those expectations. One freshman, Holden Merrill, said his first day was an adjustment. It’s not just the new Chromebook, to which he’s quickly becoming attached; he’s also learning to set a higher bar for his work.
“The teachers expect a lot of you and that makes you expect more of yourself,” he said.
Meanwhile, freshman Jacqueline Guadarrama is getting used to setting her own pace in classes. She’s already been ingrained with the spirit of higher education and the Trojan Family — her older siblings chose to attend USC, introducing her to campus and Trojan football. Now her own time is coming.
Two weeks down, many more to go
It’s not just the students who are learning to push themselves.
Hera Kim, the school counselor, left Shanghai American School in China to work at USC College Prep, where she looks after the social and emotional health of students while also monitoring college benchmarks and developing student behavior. She said the weight of starting a new school keeps her mindful of the precedents she’ll help set and that collaboration is imperative.
And Daniel Bates, the assistant dean of student culture, who once had aspirations toward professional athletics, said that he joined USC College Prep to help students from the same low-income backgrounds that he grew up knowing.
“Our system and our game plan for how we teach inspired me to be a part of something,” he said.
Social studies teacher Jenny Ham ’13 noted that the first two weeks show a work in progress, “but we are all in the work together.” Now the attention turns to sustaining momentum. Early activities have helped build the relationships between school and students, including well-attended game and movie nights. Teachers report that their students are all showing up to class on time and working hard on the material.
But for Castro, the biggest metric of success may be a qualitative one.
“We’re really hoping that our students leave high school understanding what their purpose is and what their role is in creating positive multigenerational change,” she said.