During our very first Samueli Academy Committee meeting of the new league year, Committee Manager Kendra Puryear shared an excerpt with the group from Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (2011). In the passage we explored, Friedman and Mandelbaum maintain that education is “too demanding for the burden to be borne by teachers and principals alone” (p. 118). Community is key; an entire community must come together to ensure that American schools foster true learning in an age of unprecedented change on a global scale. Members of society with no direct ties to institutions of learning should demonstrate an investment in public education if they hope to produce young women and men ready to succeed at the postsecondary level, and eventually to sustain the U.S. economy.
During an early-morning Samueli Academy training event in late July that Kendra and I attended at the high school, it became clear to me how Samueli embodies this educational ideal of meaningful integration within a community. Just as Tracy Cooper, Senior Development Director at Orangewood Foundation, spoke of how Orangewood sprang up to accommodate the immediate needs of displaced foster children in Orange County, she went on to explain how Samueli Academy in Santa Ana arose from Susan Samueli and Sandi Jackson’s desire to improve the dispiriting 50% high school graduation rate of local foster youth. Samueli and Jackson’s vision to help OC’s underserved youth population in the early 2000s became a reality in 2013, when the Academy opened its doors to its first students as one of Orangewood’s most ambitious programs. A public charter school, Samueli has a 97% attendance rate — the highest in all of Orange County — and all five of the foster students in the Academy’s first freshman class graduated in June. Higher numbers of foster youth are expected to graduate in future classes, and foster teens are automatically accepted to the high school if they apply.
“Our students want to be here,” said Nyree Tramble, Work-Based Learning and Volunteer Coordinator at Samueli Academy. Nyree gave a presentation on Samueli’s unique, project-based pedagogy with engineering and design academic pathways for students. The Academy identifies as a STEAM school (focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math). Most classes do not require textbooks. The Academy prides itself on its small classroom sizes, tech savviness, “hands-on” approach to education, and ability to individualize the learning experience through the deep personal commitment of its staff members. In a promotional video produced by the school (see link below), one student states, “[If] you feel like you don’t have a place, this is the place […] I felt like I never really belonged in any school or in any group of friends. But now that I’m here, I’m with a group of friends that love me, and I love them, and […] I’m at a school that I am absolutely proud to call my high school.” Samueli’s supportive ethos, strikingly holistic academic methodology, and focus on practical life skills — which include interviewing, interning, résumé-writing, and delivering presentations — are thought to better prepare students for the “real world” of employment.
As such, the Academy appears truly to incarnate Friedman and Mandelbaum’s educational ideal of mutual reciprocity in which students and community alike benefit; its inception was made possible through women who sought to serve the needs of their community, and it strives to enrich Orange County through the cultivation of graduates ready to take on the world and leave their mark on their home communities. An engineer from a local company was present at the training event, visibly impressed by what happens at Samueli and by the Academy’s expansive network of OC professionals who invest in Samueli students by offering them valuable opportunities, including internships. Nino, an engineering teacher we met on our tour of the campus, had worked in aerospace at Boeing for three decades before deciding to impart his industry knowledge to the teens at Samueli.
In spite of the tremendous progress made in actualizing the Samueli community’s shared vision of college and career readiness for its students, there remains much work to be done. The school is a work-in-progress with plans to construct new buildings, install a full regulation-sized soccer field, incorporate a middle school, and build on-site housing so that students with less stable living arrangements can stand a greater chance of continuing their studies uninterrupted. Academically, there remains a pressing need to strike a healthy balance between Samueli’s signature “hands-on” methodology and those more conventional classroom skills required to succeed on standardized tests, and eventually, the college classroom. There is also a push to better inform seniors of how to obtain merit-based financial aid at out-of-state universities so that future Samueli alumni can expand their postsecondary educational horizons less encumbered by the harsh realities of college tuition fees.
Opportunities abound for Junior League members to become active participants in the ongoing growth and development of the “Firewolves” who attend Samueli along with the staff who support them on their educational journeys. Volunteers are needed to help out with Community Nights, catered events which bring students, parents, and staff together to discuss all the latest happenings at the Academy. In addition, seniors need assistance completing FAFSA forms to apply for financial aid for college, especially given the unique challenges certain Samueli students face regarding undocumented parents and family members who are reticent to release personal financial information. Volunteers are also needed to offer guidance to students who are working on their college applications statements. And as Nyree stressed, a stronger Junior League presence at Samueli’s next graduation ceremony in June would be much appreciated.
Tracy was particularly excited about next year’s “Belle of the Ball” event run by Orangewood, in which over 100 teens girls from OC’s most underserved areas choose their dream prom dresses and accessories from a vast collection of donated sartorial goods. According to the Orangewood website, Belle of the Ball is “a day of beauty, self-esteem and empowerment for teen girls” as participants attend key workshops on self-esteem and body image designed to build confidence. The upcoming Ninth Annual Belle of the Ball will, for the very first time, include girls from the Samueli Academy. Junior League volunteers will be welcome to join in the festivities. I recommended to Tracy that we incorporate a presentation on health and nutrition next year, and she was enthused at the idea and asked whether I knew of anyone with relevant expertise to speak at the event. My committee is open to receiving suggestions.
My summer morning at Samueli Academy was certainly well spent as I was able to witness firsthand the incredible work performed by the men and women whose investment in OC’s most vulnerable teens has yielded returns on both the individual and broader societal levels. As Academy staff emphasized, the Samueli community — comprising a myriad of voices, experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs — forms a kind of family. I feel excited and energized for the new challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the 2017-18 Samueli Academy Committee and for any member of Junior League eager to join the Firewolves pack.
(Ann-Margaret Tomocik, Samueli Academy Committee Member)
Check out the Samueli Academy Promotional Video: https://youtube.com/watch?v=_sNDS3w2vYQ