Sergio Contreras, Senior Education Manager of Orange County United Way, is on a mission to transform Orange County Schools.

The former Westminster School District board member and current Westminster city council member passionately believes that “As parents of two beautiful children, my wife and I are fully vested in our educational system. My father was a janitor and I grew up an English Learner without much means, yet made it because of great teachers and a great public education culminating with a Master’s degree at CSULB. But as tough as those times were for someone like me, these times are tougher. Our children may not realize it but they are competing against kids from China, India and Europe, young bright minds from all over the world. My children as well as all children in OC need to understand what that means and to be prepared for a more globally connected community. “

This past March, California became the 18th P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Schools) state to endorse the framework which basically asks schools to: ensure access to a whole curriculum relevant to the world, teach the 4Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity).

United Way, along with CSUF Educational Partnerships and CSUF GEAR UP and the newly formed California Center for 21st Century Education co-sponsored a student leadership conference training students to work with their local districts to support the state P21 initiative. The conference featured student and educational leaders, including Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares, who lent his support to the unprecedented civic engagement initiative. The students developed marketing plans and practiced pitching an on-line petition to ask members of their communities to support the 4Cs in their local schools.

In Anaheim, since the high school district already had endorsed P21 education, students petitioned Mayor Tom Tait and the city council for internship opportunities that would cultivate the 4Cs and support a fifth C, character, which aligned with the mayor’s “kindness” initiative.

Fabienne Munoz, a Katella High School senior who helped get over 1,000 signatures, said “This is really about our future. I have young siblings who will benefit from internships. To get a good job these days requires experience and the sooner we can work, even as volunteers, the better for us, our families and our community.” Ms Munoz, who plans on attending the Naval Academy adds, “Many of our parents signed the petition because they want our city to support this important initiative which will help their children and make Anaheim the first P21 city in California.”

Adds Mr. Contreras, “Those of us who made it have an obligation to pay it forward. The stakes are very high. Within the next decade, due to retirement, California will need an additional one million workers with bachelors degrees. What does that mean for Orange County? Who is in the pipeline now that will be ready for college success? What are we doing strategically to develop k-20 educational collaboration to ensure we meet the needs of this county so that we remain a viable economic and social engine?

United Way, along with several of our partners, is committed to addressing this issue with a sense of urgency called ‘Destination Graduation’ and will persevere until we succeed. Our children are depending on it.”

On May 8, over 250 Anaheim students, dressed professionally in ties and business attire, presented nearly 5,000 petitions to the mayor and city council. The mayor quipped, “I hope this is one issue that we can all agree on.” He immediately announced a task force that will include a city council member to address the student concerns to create purposeful internships and job shadowing opportunities thus making Anaheim the first P21 city in the USA.

North County educator and community college trustee Michael Matsuda is a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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