A unique and transformational public charter school focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).
Since 2015, the public charter school Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts (OCASA) has carried out its mission to place an emphasis on the academic, social and physical development in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM). We believe high-quality, accessible, and equitable education is a human right. As the world around us evolves and advances, so must our schools, who are teaching the future leaders of our communities, states, and nation. STEAM skills are in high demand. As stated recently by the U.S. Department of Education STEM Department, to create a nation where our future leaders, neighbors, and workers can understand and solve some of the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, and to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students' skills, content knowledge, and literacy in STEAM fields is essential.
OCASA operates under four guiding principles of teaching and learning:
1. Every child is unique;
2. We learn by doing;
3. A commitment to equality and diversity is vital; and
4. A thriving community nurtures thriving students.
We serve approximately 500 students annually across two campuses in Orange County, California: OCASA Elementary serves students K-5th grade in Laguna Niguel, and OCASA College Prep offers 6-10th grade classes (eventually to 12th grade) in San Juan Capistrano. Both OCASA campuses offer unique and innovative curriculum designed to help youth launch a STEAM-focused future. Through STEAM education, students are empowered to be curious learners who seek creative solutions to questions they can’t just search for online, leading students to develop the soft and hard skills necessary to succeed in college and in their careers. Additionally, our schools provide an environment that is welcoming of students and their families to learn in harmony favoring a multi-cultural spirit and awareness of the world we live in.
At OCASA, all classes are single-grade level. In addition, each student is assigned a mentor and a Self-Directed Learning (SDL) period to work on individual goals, group projects, and teacher-directed workshops. One-to-one mentoring is one of the important pillars of instruction at OCASA College Prep as we know how important it is for children to be truly connected with and cared for by the adults at their school. All students are paired with a mentor who acts as their advocate both inside and outside of the classroom. Mentors meet with their students one-on-one regularly to support their students in their progress towards their short-term and long-term academic and personal goals. The educational program at OCASA College Prep utilizes instructional practices that are proven to promote student learning. Teachers and administrators develop and implement an innovative educational model that addresses the needs of the whole child and emphasizes academic, personal, social, and emotional development.
OCASA Elementary and OCASA College Prep offer all required courses at each grade level including Math, English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Physical Education. In addition, we have a number of specialty classes that vary by grade level and campus such as fine arts, music, engineering, design & modeling, computer science, and Spanish. Both OCASA campuses are classroom-based, personalized learning schools. The goal is to provide adaptable instruction to each student regardless of their age or grade-level.
What OCASA Aims to Solve
The pandemic created an unprecedented educational rupture, the ramifications of which could last a lifetime. Although schools have adapted to our new reality as rapidly as possible, without continued adaption, the cumulative learning loss among already disadvantaged students can be catastrophic, especially in mathematics: Students of color may find themselves six months to an entire year behind. In addition to the imminent threat of unprecedented learning loss to contend with, there is also a looming potential for equally unprecedented dropout rates. Exit from public school systems is occurring to different degrees, but the biggest drop may be at the starting point in kindergarten. The lack of a kindergarten experience can have profound developmental impacts influencing later academic performance and even long-term life outcomes. Especially given that early STEAM interventions are key to capturing interest and nurturing STEAM identities that can lead, this trend of kindergarten departures is especially alarming.
Compounding this, despite the perennial growth of lucrative STEM professions, gaps in STEM labor force participation remain just as persistent— the World Economic Forum has detailed a troubling skills shortage that will require 50% of all employees to reskill by 2025. Even still, low-income students, girls, and students of color overwhelmingly fall into the gap between their STEM education and a STEM workforce with increasingly vacant positions.
Notably, research shows that racial/ethnic minority students tend to take fewer high-level STEM courses in high school compared to White students, despite showing similar levels of interest and confidence in STEM topics —nurturing a STEM Identity among groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields and professions, therefore, is critical to accessing this interest and confidence, countering stereotypes that preclude STEM identification, and confronting the systemic inequities that consistently keep BIPOC students, girls, and low-income students out of STEM fields and lucrative, available workforce pathways.
OCASA’s STEAM Education
In the short-term, OCASA aims to remedy the educational rupture brought on by COVID-19. In the long-term, OCASA will meet the ever-changing needs of the community with an innovative, new school model that provides families with greater options for their children’s education. Students’ level of exposure to STEAM in K–12 is a critical reason why they choose to or don’t choose pursue STEAM fields during their college education. Elementary public school students spend very little time on science, and the state sets a very low passing score on its 8th-grade science test.
At OCASA, our STEAM learning involves looking at our world through a multicultural lens in STEAM, as well as a Spanish culture and language program. Each class meets two days a week, with all STEAM+ electives striving to be hands-on, with innovative lessons tied to other subject areas and our Inquiry Arc theme. Inquiry Arcs are discrete units of study that utilize inquiry to drive learning and build students’ agency. They provide broad context and room for exploration around an interdisciplinary theme, and allow students to identify patterns and connections in their learning. Students at OCASA Elementary have meaningful time for tinkering, prototyping, and building through our on-campus lab spaces, as well as resource-rich experiences in music and the arts.
The following represents the impact of OCASA’s unique educational approach:
• Deliberate practice in the art of short-, medium-, and long-term goal setting supports students’ development.
• Developing a student’s self-knowledge is a key building block for lifelong learning.
• Deep, hands-on exploration of a diverse array of subject areas, professional fields, and work-settings not only helps expose students to new experiences but also develops self- knowledge and supports an emergent sense of purpose.
• Students with a sense of belonging in school feel socially connected, supported, and respected. They trust their teachers and their peers. They are confident that they are seen as a person of value.
• In order to achieve their college and career goals, students need an understanding of the transition to the college and career landscape including, but not limited to, practical, financial, and logistical requirements and admission processes.
Technology is a part of daily instruction and contributes to the application-based approach to learning. Given the world that we share, we believe that technology proficiency and judgment is critical, and that enables students to explore and propel their learning forward.
We see our role in the ecosystem of Orange County schools as:
1. A lab-school focused on experiential learning as well as a test bed to prototype other nontraditional educational approaches;
2. A thought partner responsible for sharing out best practices and lessons learned, and;
3. A collaborator working alongside other school leaders in the pursuit of providing all children with an excellent education.
OCASA is not a private school. As a public charter school, academic instruction is funded by the State of California. However, we rely on the generosity of the individuals, foundations, businesses and corporations to fund the annual cost of our programs, scholarships, afterschool services and community outreach programs. OCASA does not charge tuition and admits all students who wish to attend unless it receives a greater number of applications than there are spaces for students, in which case it will hold a public random drawing to determine admission.
Our unique educational approach aims to prepare our diverse and underserved students for an increasingly complex and globalized world. Additionally, OCASA provides a pathway to college and a professional career for low-middle income students who may not have had the opportunity otherwise due to limited resources. Donations would allow OCASA to continue to offer its award winning STEAM curriculum to any student, regardless of income, background and residency/school district. Together, we can ensure that all youth in our community have the opportunity to thrive academically, socially and emotionally.