In the News: Most Influential 2022 – Orange County school leader creates school he wishes he attended

January 6, 2023 OC Register

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Maybe it’s the scuba diving. From the surface, it’s easy to think you know and love and understand the ocean — but slip beneath the waves and unimagined wonders unfold. It just takes a small shift in perspective to unlock secrets.

Anthony Saba and his family love to dive, and one might argue that he brings a gift for shifted perspectives to his post as executive director of the Samueli Academy. The charter public school was designed with the unique needs of foster youth in mind, and it turns out that the slight change in focus can work magic with other kids as well.

“Foster youth are our mission, our heart. But we have students from all over the community,” Saba said. “When you design with foster youth in mind, you benefit all students.”

There are the smaller-than-regular-public-school class sizes and teachers who are trained to work with trauma. There’s an emphasis on hands-on, project-based learning, and on how academic subjects work in the real world. Engineers show kids what math can really do. Businessfolk demonstrate the need for planning, projection and analysis. The work-based learning program exposes kids to different careers, and an internship is required in order to graduate.

“I taught math, but growing up, no one was able to tell me how it applied to the real world,” Saba said.

Not here. The kids have worked with city planners on the hows and whys of urban design. They’ve visited Fluor and seen commercial construction projects progress from blueprint to concrete. They’ve designed T-shirts with the Anaheim Ducks marketing department. They’ve created new shoe designs for Vans, complete with 10-page professional design briefs and color pallets and branding plans.

“It’s all hands-on, real-world, authentic learning, instead of this arbitrary stuff,” Saba said. “It brings the curriculum to life. That really benefits all kids who need engagement and outside-the-box learning. Even though we have foster youth in mind, it is really the best way to learn for any student. I wish I would have gone to a school like this.”

And it’s not over when students graduate. Samueli Academy graduates get mentors for four additional years to help them get their footing in the sometimes-overwhelming world of adulthood. That was an outgrowth of the foster kids focus, but it benefits all the kids, Saba said.

The Samueli Academy began as a spark in the minds of Susan Samueli and Sandi Jackson some 20 years ago, when they were on the board of the Orangewood Foundation. High school graduation rates for foster kids were alarmingly low (while some 84% of California’s high school students graduate, only 56% of foster youth do). Many launched into adulthood without any safety net (and half experience homelessness at some point).

The philanthropists, mothers themselves, knew there had to be a better way.

What followed was a decade of fundraising and planning before the Samueli Academy opened in 2013. College-like dormitories where up to 48 foster youth can stay during the week opened in 2020. And in the spring, a new gymnasium and soccer field were finished, completing the $72 million campus. It sits on 7 acres in Santa Ana and serves 775 students in grades 7-12.

The dorms, however, are not full. While there are about 500 foster youth between the ages of 11 and 17 in Orange County’s child welfare system, according to state data, only a handful live on campus during the week and only a couple of dozen are enrolled. Numbers fluctuate because kids move in and out of the system, and some foster families don’t want to travel to Santa Ana. Also  — public service appeal here! — more “resource parents” are needed to make things work.

A “resource parent” is sort of a “foster parent light.” Resource parents drop foster kids off at the academy on Sunday evenings and pick them up again on Friday evenings. They host the kids just for weekends and holidays — a schedule many full-time parents might wish for.

“It’s a much lighter lift,” Saba said.

The school isn’t perfect, he said, but it has done amazing things. With a student body that’s some 60% low-income, the graduation rate is a whopping 98%, and 92% of Salmueli students go on to either two- or four-year colleges. Of those 85% finish, according to research done by UC Irvine.

“That’s more than twice the national average for this demographic,” Saba crowed.

There’s a waiting list more than 1,000 names long, but foster youth are automatically enrolled, he said.

Saba grew up in Bakersfield, loved football and studied business at the University of Miami. He started coaching football back in Bakersfield and found that he loved working with kids. He got his teaching credential and was soon drafted into administration. He’s married to a fellow educator and they have two kids — a daughter at the University of Miami and a son who’s a senior in high school.

The big payoff for Saba is something he may not have originally envisioned — the thrill he gets when students who graduated years and years earlier pop by.

“We have a student getting his Ph.D. in engineering at Brown!” he enthused. “This is a kid from across the street in Santa Ana who may or may not have been able to tell you what engineering was when he first came here. And there’s another student, married with kids, so happy and fulfilled. We’re proud of them no matter what they do. To have them realize their dreams, seeing them persevere and grow into young men and women. That keeps us motivated. It’s pretty neat.”


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