About 400,000 students across 28 Orange County school districts are returning to school this fall.

A crossing guard walks a young boy across Springdale Street from Enders Elementary School on Aug. 22, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

With summer only a memory to students, they are coming back to new classrooms, new teachers and new friends.

Vinchea Thul and his son Mark Tak at Enders Elementary School in Garden Grove on Aug. 22, 2023. Thul, who is from Cambodia, said that he and his son went back to school shopping for supplies prior to school starting. Mark, 6, will be starting first grade. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

It’s also a time where aspects of curriculum — ethnic studies, gender, literature — are being debated like never before. 

“We have seen strong opinions and, at times, contentious discussions over state legislation and local resolutions on these topics,” said Dr. Ramon Miramontes, deputy superintendent for the Orange County Department of Education.

“Yet I believe we all share a very common goal,” Miramontes added, “to ensure learning environments where students feel safe and supported, and where they can benefit from high-quality instruction that allows them to thrive in educational settings and beyond.” 

Parents picking up their children from Enders Elementary School in golf carts on Aug. 22, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

And at many local schools, the traditional approach to elementary and high school is also being reimagined. 

Education is evolving and looks different from city to city. 

“Like all aspects of society, education is evolving rapidly, driven by data-driven strategies that inform teaching and learning practices. Schools today are expanding learning opportunities through diverse modes of engagement and representations of ideas in innovative ways,” says Miramontes, “all while offering multiple avenues for student expression and action.” 

Some students attend charter, technical, and public high schools, and some are homeschooled, among other types of education. 

“One-on-one instruction really helps me,” explained Jose Rodriguez, 14, a sophomore at Santa Ana Círculos Advanced Learning Academy. 

Jose Rodriguez, 14, is a sophomore at Circulos Advanced Learning Academy in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Rodriguez enjoys math and is constantly receiving high fives in the school hallway from his peers. 

Rodriguez is part of Círculos,  a XQ Super school school, part of the “Let’s Rethink High School” school of thought, giving students a different approach to their education. 

Círculos Advanced Learning Academy Highschool in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The aim is to prepare high school students for the real world with real hands-on training.

“We’re trying to break away from the traditional high school experience by practicing project and place-based learning, taking the work we do beyond the walls of our campus and into the community,” said Tim Brodsky, Círculos teacher in Santa Ana. 

“This semester, I’m looking forward to working with students as they shape their visual storytelling style while developing a critical lens,” said Brodsky in an email. “I teach the same students in both my AP World History and Project-Based Learning 2 classes, which gives me the opportunity to develop the critical thinking skills students need to analyze history, develop arguments, and examine nuance – all rooted in their lived experiences.” 

Brodsky hopes students will see that the skills they develop in World History impact their lives now, not just on an exam or after graduation.

Tim Brodsky, a teacher at Círculos Advanced Learning Academy in Santa Ana, speaks to his students on Aug. 22, 2023. Brodsky has taught in Santa Ana for the past three years. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Círculos is already in session, but that doesn’t mean everyone is back to school. 

Timelines for back-to-school differ from district to district, according to Ian Hanigan, spokesman the Orange County Department of Education.

“The Savanna School District will be the first district in Orange County to kick off the academic year when its classes resume on Aug. 7. By contrast, the Huntington Beach City School District starts back up exactly one month later on Sept. 7. All other district start dates will fall somewhere in between, with nearly half welcoming back their students the week of Aug. 14,” read Hanigan’s report. 

Some teachers in South County are also taking a new approach to their teaching spaces. 

Teachers like Nicole Stewart, 37, believe the interior design of a classroom can amplify a child’s attitude toward learning.

Ms. Stewart stands in front of a welcome sign in her Laguna Beach first-grade classroom. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Stewart, who received new tables for her first-grade classroom from the Laguna Beach School District, chose desks with whiteboard tops for the 2023 school year. 

Stewart also has a part of the classroom where children can de-stress, which she says will support her first graders’ “social-emotional learning.” 

In first grade, Stewart says many of her students have their “lightbulb moment” and graduate to reading chapter books. 

“I love to teach reading. And I feel very passionate about reading instruction and ensuring that reading is equitable to everyone, especially with all of the new science of reading research that’s been coming to light,” added Stewart, “making sure that all of my kids are getting what they need.” 

Erika Taylor contributed to this story.


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