On a recent school day, students at the Samueli Academy in Santa Ana waved orange and black pompons and cheered during a basketball game that pitted middle schoolers against staff.
Just a few months ago, that wouldn’t have been possible.
The gymnasium is new. So is the soccer field. They are the last pieces of a $72 million fundraising campaign that over the last decade built an innovative public charter school with a focus on helping foster youth.
“Done,” said Anthony Saba, the school’s executive director, as he toured the school. “The campus is now complete.”
The campus features on-site housing for up to 48 students in the foster care program who live in school dorms five days a week and then spend weekends with their foster families. While there are a few other schools nationally that offer housing for foster youth, Samueli Academy’s two-home concept is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.
“We wanted to create this beautiful campus for these kids,” said philanthropist Susan Samueli, who along with Sandi Jackson – both board members of the Orangewood Foundation – came up with the idea of a high school with dorms for students in foster care in 2001.
A year after buying the land, the school opened in the fall of 2013. At the time, it had 125 students in its first freshman class along with six teachers working in portables. The school grew each year, eventually adding 7th and 8th grades, hundreds of students and about 70 more employees.
The Samueli Academy is a program of the Orangewood Foundation, a non-profit that provides services to foster kids and other community youth. Children in foster care typically move from one home to another, a lack of stability that can be difficult to overcome. Only about half of foster children graduate from high school and roughly the same percentage experience homelessness at some point in their lives. There are about 2,500 students in foster care in Orange County and more than 17,000 in Los Angeles County.
While the Samueli Academy is best known for its attention to foster youth, those students are actually a small subset of the school’s overall enrollment of about 775 students.
“We haven’t had as many (foster students) as we would like, about eight per semester,” said Samueli, who is on the board of the school named after her and her husband, Henry, co-founder of Broadcom Corporation and, with Susan, owner of the Anaheim Ducks hockey team. Jackson, the other philanthropist behind the campus, is the school board’s chairwoman.
The number of foster students on campus fluctuates because the kids move in and out of the system, Saba said. The school currently has approximately 15 to 20 foster students, with six living on campus, Saba said.
Samueli said it’s taken time to build up a program.
“There are a lot of reasons the numbers are low,” she said. “The social workers have to trust what we’re doing. And the foster families have to be willing to send the kids to the school,” she said.
Best practices to help foster youth also have changed, she said. Increasingly, group homes are closing as part of a broad push to place foster youth with families.
“It’s a little more complicated than saying ‘We have this great school for foster kids.’ It’s not always as straightforward as we wanted it to be. But having the residential program on campus will raise those numbers with the 5-2 model we created.”
The school’s building that houses college-style suites and other living areas was scheduled to open early last year, but the pandemic slowed that down. The first students to live on campus moved in recently and more are expected soon, Saba said.
Meanwhile, the school’s students, in seventh through twelve grades, are taught in classrooms with a ratio of 21 students to one teacher, which is lower than the average public school.
Samueli Academy students also have access to state-of-the-art academic buildings. In the engineering fabrication lab, for example, students can learn how to wire a house, use a laser cutter, and measure lift and drag with a wind tunnel. The campus also includes a student union and a college and career center.
Throughout the school, teachers take a hands-on, project-based learning approach. All students are offered after-school tutoring. And all students get internships, which is a graduation requirement.
The Samueli Academy also stays connected with students after they graduate.
“We have this multi-layered approach,” Saba said. That approach includes an alumni center, alumni chapters, and a staff member dedicated to assisting students for four years after high school graduation.
Walking around the 7.1-acre campus, Saba said there’s much to be proud of at Samueli Academy. Then he points to flags waiving from flagpoles that feature photos of alumni.
“I’m most proud of those kids,” Saba said.
The flags dot the campus. And there are a lot of them.
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