County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares to step down in June, citing health issues

Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares
Dr. Al Mijares, pictured in 2017 during a conference to announce a partnership between Khan Academy and regional county offices of education, will retire June 30.

Dr. Al Mijares, who has led the Orange County Department of Education for over a decade as the county’s 11th superintendent of schools, has announced that he plans to retire at the end of June.

In collaboration with district superintendents and other key partners, Mijares introduced a range of new initiatives during his tenure aimed at promoting student achievement and positive school climates. He also worked closely with public health officials and those same superintendents to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In August 2023, Mijares took a medical leave of absence due to health issues. Although he expressed optimism last month about potentially resuming his duties this summer, he said more recent discussions with his family and medical team prompted his decision to step down. In a statement released to staff on Friday, he also disclosed his battle with cancer.

“With the best interests of the Orange County Department of Education in mind, and for the sake of my health, I am announcing my retirement, effective June 30,” he wrote. The full statement is below.

Mijares was initially appointed by the Orange County Board of Education in August 2012, filling the vacancy left by former superintendent William Habermehl. He ran unopposed for the position in 2014 and 2018, and secured a final four-year term against a challenger in 2022.

Throughout his terms, Mijares championed equity, access and opportunity while forging key partnerships to increase college and career readiness. Even as he increased the department’s visibility, he consistently stressed to staff the importance of personal traits like character and integrity in service of the county’s 450,000 public school students and more than 600 schools.

Al Mijares
Dr. Al Mijares was re-elected in 2022.

“Dr. Mijares’ unshakeable commitment to the success and well-being of every student was inspiring to all who worked alongside him,” OCDE Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ramon Miramontes said. “His dedication to rigorous academics and career pathways while promoting empathy and compassion will forever be his legacy, reminding us of the profound impact that a caring leader can have on the lives of students and families.”

Prior to his appointment as county superintendent, Mijares spent six years as vice president of the College Board, where he worked to expand the high school-to-university pipeline as part of an effort to promote college readiness and success for all students. Before that, he served for more than 11 years as superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, which received national recognition for successfully meeting the needs of a large and diverse student body.

He also served as superintendent of the Bakersfield City and Coachella Valley Unified school districts and as a principal in the Moreno Valley Unified School District in Riverside County.

In August 2023, Mijares submitted documentation to take a medical leave, having appointed Deputy Superintendent Miramontes to oversee day-to-day operations. Miramontes will continue to lead OCDE with his leadership team while the Orange County Board of Education works to appoint a successor, as required by California’s Education Code. The new appointee will serve out the remainder of Mijares’ term, which continues through 2026.

Here is Dr. Mijares’ full statement:

In a memo shared with you in March, I expressed optimism about potentially resuming my duties as county superintendent this summer, following a medical leave of absence that was necessary to address a physical health issue.

Yet after extensive discussions with my medical team and my family, as well as considerable prayer, it has become clear that I must choose a different path. With the best interests of the Orange County Department of Education in mind, and for the sake of my health, I am announcing my retirement, effective June 30.

Over the past year, I have chosen to keep many of the details of my health challenges private, largely to avoid distracting from the critical work we undertake together. Now, I feel it is appropriate to share with you that I have been battling cancer.

Anyone whose life has been impacted by this type of diagnosis knows it can be an uneven journey fraught with challenges — and countless medical consultations. My own road has been both humbling and enlightening, but I have not traveled it alone.

Along with the support of my family, I have witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion, particularly from those who have dedicated their lives to caring for others. Moreover, this experience has highlighted the remarkable medical advancements achieved by professionals who, it should be noted, once stood in the shoes of the students we serve.

This time has allowed me to deeply reflect on our collective mission to guide those students toward becoming the best versions of themselves. It is my hope that they will not only lead fulfilling lives but will also be in a position to make significant contributions of their own to scientific and medical breakthroughs that benefit humankind.

Looking back at my professional life — from my early days as a program specialist serving physically disabled children, to my later years as a district and county superintendent — I feel incredibly blessed to have had such a long and fulfilling career. Now, having surpassed the age at which many choose to retire, I know in my heart that it is time to pass the reins to new leaders, and I am grateful that we have so many capable individuals right here in Orange County who are ready to take our programs and services to the next level.

I am especially grateful to Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ramon Miramontes, who has been my designee since August. Ramon has shown considerable wisdom and enthusiasm, embodying the mission, vision and values of our organization. He will continue to lead our department alongside OCDE’s leadership team as the Orange County Board of Education undertakes the process of filling the superintendency with an appointee who will serve out the remainder of my term, as required by California’s Education Code.

Finally, I want to express my deepest appreciation to all of you, not only for the support you have shown me through these challenging times but also for the exceptional work you do on behalf of our students every day. Some of you have been rightfully recognized with accolades at the state and national levels, while others work quietly behind the scenes. Regardless, your dedication is seen, and it is shaping today’s learners into the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. It has been an immense privilege to lead such a passionate and effective team.

Remember that we at OCDE are stewards of the department, serving it diligently and safeguarding it for future generations. As I step away, I will carry with me cherished memories and a profound sense of pride in all that we have accomplished together. At the same time, I look forward to watching each of you continue to inspire and lead, pushing this organization and the students we serve to even greater heights.

God bless you richly as you serve countless students that will enable them to reach their full potential.

Al Mijares, Ph.D.
County Superintendent of Schools

An ambitious vision

The Orange County Department of Education directly serves the county’s most vulnerable student populations through its alternative and special education divisions. It also supports 28 local districts with a broad array of services necessary for their operations, including professional development, legal and fiscal guidance, high-speed internet access and security, payroll services and student enrichment. 

Early in his tenure at OCDE, Mijares and his leadership team began developing a comprehensive Strategic Plan for the department based on the ambitious vision that “Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success.” That roadmap, created in partnership with Chief Academic Officer Jeff Hittenberger and refreshed in 2016, featured eight strategic priorities covering such areas as college and career readiness, technology, special populations and the whole child. It also included desired outcomes and key performance indicators.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares with Orange County Teacher of the Year Raquel Solorzano-Duenas
Dr. Mijares, pictured with 2016 Orange County Teacher of the Year Raquel Solorzano-Dueñas, toured the county each year to make surprise Teacher of the Year announcements.

In a number of important metrics, Orange County’s public school students consistently outpaced their state counterparts during Mijares’ years in office. That included English language arts and mathematics assessments, as well as graduation rates. In the 2022-23 academic year, nearly 92 percent of Orange County’s high school seniors graduated on time, surpassing California’s average by more than 5 percentage points.

In 2014, Mijares shepherded the creation of the OC Pathways initiative. The countywide consortium became a model throughout the state for uniting educators and industry leaders behind work-based learning opportunities and streamlined career paths for students. In the years that followed, partners developed coursework that combined rigorous academics with career preparation across 15 industry sectors.

Under Mijares’ leadership, OCDE was tapped by the state in 2016 to become the lead agency overseeing an initiative to scale up California’s Multi-Tiered System of Support, which aligns new and existing strategies to meet students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs. Based on the theme “All Means All,” the MTSS framework is built on the idea of providing a foundation of support for all students, additional assistance for some and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs. 

MTSS, which resulted in a number of positive outcomes, empowers educators to identify and resolve challenges before they escalate into larger barriers to learning. Staff members are further encouraged to know the “Name, Face and Story” of every student on a campus, and Mijares would embrace that theme repeatedly when hosting online forums and colloquiums.

Building bridges

Mijares placed a premium on communication and collaboration during his time as superintendent, repositioning OCDE from a behind-the-scenes educational agency to a beacon of support for school districts and families.

In 2015, the department created the OCDE Newsroom, a website featuring news and information about OCDE and Orange County schools. With new stories appearing almost daily, the OCDE Newsroom evolved to cover a range of topics, from best practices in the classroom to policy changes at the state and national levels. Mijares also directed the creation of a companion site, The 101, to help unpack complex educational issues for parents and families. 

Al Mijares addressing the public
Mijares stressed the importance of personal traits like character and integrity in service of the county’s 450,000 public school students and more than 600 schools.

With Mijares as the driving force, OCDE won six prestigious Golden Bell awards from the California School Boards Association between 2015 and 2023. Earning recognition were Project Zero Waste (2015), the multi-agency Gift of History program (2016), OCDE’s Project GLAD® National Training Center (2017), the California Multi-Tiered System of Support (2019), OC Pathways (2021) and the department’s Crisis Response Network (2023).

Meanwhile, Mijares was instrumental as OCDE teamed up with the City of Westminster to create an interactive park and trail commemorating the landmark school desegregation case of Mendez v. Westminster; partnered with Vanguard University to host annual conferences to discuss human trafficking trends and solutions; launched a partnership with Khan Academy to increase student access to free online tutoring programs; and worked with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to promote school safety and ensure educators and families had the resources and tools needed to help combat the fentanyl crisis.

Mijares also conceived OCDE’s One Billion Acts of Kindness initiative in 2016. The campaign asked Orange County residents, including students, to log their acts of kindness on a website with the goal of reaching one billion.

The broader aim reflected Mijares’ desire to promote character, improve school climates and amplify civility in Orange County and beyond. To date, more than 15 million kind acts have been submitted.

“We’re going to do it, and we have so many people engaged, and I hope that you’ll join us in this effort,” Mijares told an audience in 2020. “It’s done in the spirit of trying to deal with the toxicity that we see in our society, stuff that surfaces and then gets into even the classroom and affects our culture, so we have to be reminded of civility, kindness, respect for all — and all means all.”

Leadership during crisis

Orange County schools were on high alert when the first local case of COVID-19 was reported in late January of 2020. Yet few could imagine the scope and duration of the global crisis and disruptions that would follow. 

In the initial phases of the pandemic, Mijares directed OCDE’s educational and technology teams to provide comprehensive support to school districts. Along with deploying a website to help educators, counselors and families maintain instructional continuity during distance learning, OCDE staff rapidly distributed nearly 1,800 hotspots to help local districts expand connectivity, and the department worked with the state to deliver about 500 laptops. OCDE also advised local districts on how to obtain wireless equipment and devices for distance learning while acquiring technology for its own alternative and special education programs. 

Al Mijares at his desk
Orange County schools were among the first in the state to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020.

Meanwhile, Mijares was in close contact with Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau, and the two began meeting regularly with local superintendents to discuss trends, best practices and updated guidance, which was posted regularly on the OCDE Newsroom. 

The high level of communication and collaboration enabled many Orange County schools to be among the first in the state to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. In 2022, the partnership between Mijares and Chau was recognized by the Orange County School Boards Association, which presented the duo with its prestigious Maureen DiMarco Award. 

Mijares made it a top priority to support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of students returning after distance learning. Much of that work centered on providing training and technical assistance aligned with MTSS. OCDE also developed resources and trainings for school employees and families who experienced trauma related to COVID-19, and the department used grant funding to hire regional mental health coordinators, creating a countywide infrastructure to strengthen procedures and protocols. 

In 2021, OCDE partnered with Children’s Hospital of Orange County to assist school districts with the creation of campus-based WellSpace centers, providing calm and comfortable environments for students to reset and practice mindfulness strategies with support from counselors and other staff. To date, more than 20 WellSpaces have been established at school campuses.

A love for learning

Mijares grew up in Los Angeles and, by his own account, moved many times with his family. By the time he reached the fourth grade at Eastman Elementary School, which served children from a nearby housing project, he wasn’t sure if he even liked school. But, he said, the patience, persistence and high expectations of his teacher, Mrs. Crane, set him on course to love learning.

“Not once did Mrs. Crane express pity or make us feel like we were less than capable,” he wrote in a column in 2016. “Investing whatever time was necessary, she guided the class through the fundamentals of reading, teaching us to attack words with passion and vigor. We were going to spell these new words, pronounce them correctly and read them in context, and that was that.”

Al Mijares on stage
The Institute for Community Impact named Mijares one of four Pillars of Influence for 2017.

Mijares earned his bachelor’s degree in child development and special education from California State University, Northridge. While working in the San Francisco Bay area as a project specialist for physically disabled children in public schools, he earned his master’s degree in social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley. He went on to pursue his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. He also held several education credentials, including school psychology and school administration.

Mijares was treasurer of Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union, a member of the Board of Trustees for Biola University, a member of the advisory council of the Tiger Woods Learning Center Foundation, a member of the advisory board of Public Schools for Tomorrow, and first chairman of the Santa Ana Empowerment Zone board of directors.

Throughout his career, he was the recipient of numerous honors, including the American Association of School Administrators Leadership for Learning Award, the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 2005 Educator of the Year Award, the League of United Latin American Citizens’ 2004 Excellence in Education Award, the Association of California School Administrators’ Diversity Award, and the California School Board Association’s Merit Award for Outstanding Leadership.

In 2017, the Institute for Community Impact named Mijares as one of four Pillars of Influence in Orange County, and in 2021 he made the Orange County Register’s list of 125 Most Influential People.

“Remember that we at OCDE are stewards of the department, serving it diligently and safeguarding it for future generations,” Mijares wrote in his retirement notice to staff. “As I step away, I will carry with me cherished memories and a profound sense of pride in all that we have accomplished together. At the same time, I look forward to watching each of you continue to inspire and lead, pushing this organization and the students we serve to even greater heights.”