For 129 years and counting, OCDE has been committed to supporting students and schools

Sunday will quietly mark an important anniversary for Orange County — and the Orange County Department of Education.

One hundred twenty-nine years ago, on March 11, 1889, the California Legislature divided Los Angeles County and created the County of Orange as a separate political entity. The change took effect the following August.

Though it would be decades before OCDE would emerge as its own independent agency, the nascent county government was staffed with personnel dedicated to supporting local schools and students. They served under the direction of John P. Greeley, who was Orange County’s first superintendent of schools from 1889 through 1902.

A photo from 1893 showing students at Garden Grove School
Students in grades seven, eight and nine pose outside Garden Grove School in 1893, about four years after the County of Orange became an independent political entity with staff to support local schools and students. Principal J.P. Yoder is in the back row.

Greeley’s annual report in 1890 indicates 33 districts with a combined enrollment of 3,426 students. There were a total of 32 schoolhouses in the county back then, and the county superintendent’s annual salary was listed at $1,800. Male teachers earned an average monthly salary of $83.24; their female counterparts earned just $68.83 per month.

Santa Ana was listed as the county’s largest school district with 965 students in 1890. San Juan Capistrano earns the title of the oldest district in Orange County, having operated as one of five original Los Angeles County school districts in 1850.

In those early days, members of the Orange County Board of Education were appointed by county supervisors, who sought out top-notch administrators or teachers for the posts. According to “100 Years of Public Education in Orange County,” authored by Merton E. Hill and published in 1957, the first county boards administered both written and oral exams as a basis for student promotions. They also provided examinations for elementary and high school teachers’ certificates.

In Superintendent Greeley’s final annual report, dated July 10, 1902, he noted the “prosperous condition” of Orange County schools.

“The standard for qualification of teachers has been raised each year and a better quality of work is the result,” he wrote. “Nearly seventy-five percent of our teachers have received special training and are active, energetic, and conscientious in their work. The work in all districts has been characterized by an unusual degree of interest.”

Today, Orange County is home to about 500,000 public school students who are served by 20,000 educators in 27 districts and more than 600 campuses. And the Orange County Department of Education is as committed as ever to their success.

With a Strategic Plan based on the vision that “Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success,” OCDE provides support, professional development, financial assistance and student programs through a raft of coordinated divisions and departments. These include Administrative Services, Alternative Education, Business Services, Information Technology, Legal Services, Special Education, Community and Student Support Services, Career and Technical Education, and Instructional Services.

Speaking of Instructional Services — and history — OCDE will host this year’s National History Day-Orange County competition on Saturday, bringing together more than 450 students representing 34 schools and a dozen districts. These young historians will showcase their original websites, papers, documentaries, performances and exhibits reflecting the theme “Conflict and Compromise in History.”

The top submissions from the NHD-OC competition will travel to the state finals in May, and California’s highest-scoring projects will advance to the National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland at College Park in June.