Samueli High’s first graduating class is off to college – Orange County Register

Violeta Vega looked out on her fellow Samueli Academy graduates, from her podium spot as class valedictorian, and called them “trailblazers.”

A lot of people used that word Monday.

It was a theme raised by nearly every speaker who addressed the 114 graduates celebrating the first commencement of the Santa Ana public charter. The academy’s graduation was seen by many as an affirmation that an experiment in education and economics is succeeding.

Anthony Saba, Samueli Academy’s head of school, could barely contain his emotions.

“You have given me hope that an innovative educational experience works,” he told them.

Susan Samueli, one of several speakers and whose family name the school carries, said to an auditorium full of students, staff and families at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa: “The school has exceeded beyond our wildest dreams. You, the first class, led the way.”

Her husband, Henry Samueli, who co-founded Broadcom Corp., was the keynote speaker. He remarked on the “truly remarkable achievements” of the young school.

Those achievements include a 98 percent graduation rate, a 97 percent attendance rate, and a majority of students on the honor roll, with a grade point average of 3.0 and higher.

What excited the students, families and supporters as much as the graduation was what awaits almost all of the students: they’re off to college. In the Class of 2017, 97 percent were accepted to a two- or four-year college.

Four years ago, the same students who donned graduation regalia on Monday started out in portable classrooms and used a giant dirt hill to run sprints during PE classes.

Today, that campus is a state –of-the-art facility that continues to evolve.

The public charter school is the first in Orange County designed to serve foster children and address their low graduation rates. It is affiliated with the Orangewood Foundation, an Orange County organization that provides services to youth in the foster care system and helps support the Santa Ana campus.

Many Samueli Academy students have had to overcome numerous challenges. The graduating class included five students who are in foster care, Saba said.

One of them is Vega.

“Before coming to Samueli, I didn’t think I would go to college. Nobody in my family attended college,” said Vega, 18.

At the Samueli Academy, Vega said she regularly turned to her counselor, tapped resources offered by Orangewood, and got help from multiple social workers and a volunteer who took her in.

“There was a whole team working together for me,” said Vega, who in the fall plans to attend the University of Washington.

For now, fewer than 20 students at Samueli Academy are in the foster care system, but that number is expected to grow. This fall, Orangewood will launch a $25-million campaign to create onsite housing for up to 48 foster youth. The school also hopes to build a Student Innovation Center, with an engineering lab, a design lab, a career and counseling center, a black box theater, and space for a student union and a cafeteria, said Pam Shambra, Samueli’s capital campaign director.

Most of the students now at the school, however, are not foster children and they come from the surrounding low-income neighborhood.

They include students like Ivan Mendoza, 18, who is heading to Cal State Los Angeles and wants to be a police officer.

“If I hadn’t of gone here, I don’t think I would have found myself and who I want to be,” said Mendoza, wearing leis of candy and money made by his mother and grandmother.

In a speech to his classmates, Jason Acosta, the senior class president, recalled how strange it was to enroll in a school “that didn’t even have building constructed…  we all took a chance and put our trust into the promise of a unique educational experience.”

The school places a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, along with the arts, with the aim of preparing students for careers. All freshmen take an introduction to engineering and design course and choose which track they wish to follow the remainder of their high school career, engineering or design.

Class sizes are small, learning is project-based, and all students participate in internships during the summer before their senior year – internships that are facilitated through connections with donors and the Orangewood Foundation.

The young adults, Saba said, “are poised to do great things.”

“We’re going to miss them,” Saba said in an interview prior to graduation. “ And I cannot wait to see what they grow up to become… It will be remarkable.”