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Making the grade

Making the grade

Hand-picked successor as OC superintendent reflects on job’s challenges.

When the highly respected Bill Habermehl, superintendent of schools for Orange County, stepped down in May of 2012, he left with a purpose.

He wanted to lay the foundation for his successor, one he had a hand in choosing, Al Mijares.

Habermehl left with three years to go on his term because he “wanted his successor to gain some experience on the job before he or she runs for election,” he said in a radio interview with KPCC/89.3 FM.

“To run an election in Orange County can be very expensive,” Habermehl said. “Just to get your name and a 200-word statement on the ballot can cost over $32,000. So it’s not something you want to walk into with six weeks’ notice.”

Habermehl set the stage, but Mijares was more than ready to assume the starring role of overseeing the education of more than 500,000 local students. After 34 years as an educator, the former science teacher and coach, who earned his bachelor’s in Child Development and Special Education from Cal State Northridge, his master’s in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley and his doctorate from USC, was ready to lead the Orange County Office of Education.

Mijares taught for years at the K-12 levels in addition to serving as principal and Superintendent of Schools in Bakersfield, Coachella Valley and Santa Ana. An adjunct professor at Chapman University, he taught at both Pepperdine University and Compton College. He is the father of five grown sons who were educated in the Orange County public school system.

I aked Mijares to share some observations from his first year as superintendent.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in your freshman year as superintendent?

A: Having worked as a superintendent and been a resident in Orange County for many years, I knew that the business community supported its local schools, but I was surprised at the level of interest and support across the County that the community and business organizations and philanthropic groups have for public schools.

Q: What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to face this year?

A: Addressing the complexity of equitable school funding in an era of great change, focusing on college and career readiness for all students.  This is an enormous challenge in light of a highly competitive global market.

Q: What has been your most rewarding experience?

A: Working and spending time with instructional leaders across the County, especially our superintendents and other people who also love teaching and learning.

Q: What do you think are the greatest strengths of the Orange County educational community?

A: The greatest strengths are a passion for education, leadership, benevolence, and political will.  By this, I mean that educators, lawmakers, and business people are willing to put their differences aside for the sake of helping schools and students across the County.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing us as a county in addressing the needs of our K – 12 students?

A: The biggest challenges are to keep our expectations high for student achievement and require that more students take rigorous courses. Students must leave high school with the academic skills and habits of mind to participate in higher education without the need for remediation.

Q: Do you have a particular program that you’ve come across this year that you feel is making significant impact with Orange County students?

A: There are several programs that come to mind, but one in particular that is making a huge contribution to our county is the Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy.  This program is a partnership between the Orange County Department of Education and the California National Guard, largely funded by the Department of Defense.  Sunburst helps students who need a “hand-up” in life, by enrolling them in a 5-1/2-month-long “military style” residence academy. They receive high school credit and develop academic and social skills that improve their self-image, pride and confidence, which enable them to be leaders.  Many receive a high school diploma from OCDE and continue their education in a college or university setting or enter the military.  It is astounding to witness the change in their lives and see young men and women flourish into bright and caring adults who want to serve society.  This should be the goal of every educational system in our country.

Q: What is your greatest wish or hope for the graduating class of 2013?

A: That our graduates have a bold and inspiring vision for the future. Further, that they have the passion and care for others that will motivate them to lead and serve our country so that we will retain our preeminence as a nation.

Though the education system will continue to be a challenge, Mijares exhibits the leadership and courage it takes to keep our students growing and thriving.

Visit ConnectOC.org to learn more about the needs of Orange County students, and how you can help.
Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation.

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