OCDE’s origin story dates back to this day in 1889

A photo from 1893 showing students at Garden Grove School
Students in grades seven, eight and nine stand 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.

Today quietly marks an important anniversary for Orange County — and the Orange County Department of Education.

On March 11, 1889, California Gov. Robert Waterman signed a bill that paved the way for Orange County to split from Los Angeles County and become its own separate political entity. The change officially took effect the following August, following a vote by local residents.

Though it would be another 88 years before the Orange County Department of Education would become an independent agency, the nascent county government was staffed with personnel dedicated to supporting the educational needs of local students. They served under the direction of John P. Greeley, who was Orange County’s first superintendent of schools from 1889 through 1902.

California’s public school system dates four decades earlier. It was established in 1849 through the first state Constitution, which called for an officer to oversee schools within the state’s boundaries. Judge John G. Marvin served that role as California’s first superintendent, and in the years that followed, he and his successors built the foundation of a modern school system with the help of the Legislature and the public.

Back in Orange County, Superintendent Greeley’s annual report from 1890 indicates a combined enrollment of 3,426 students. There were a total of 32 schoolhouses in Orange County, and annual expenditures for the entire county were less than $65,000. Male teachers earned a monthly salary of $83.24, while their female counterparts earned just $68.83 per month.

Santa Ana was listed as the county’s largest school district with 965 students that year. 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 the early days, members of the Orange County Board of Education were appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, who pursued first-rate 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’s Orange County Department of Education, under the leadership of County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, supports 28 local school districts with services necessary for their operations, including professional development, high-speed internet access and security, legal and fiscal guidance, payroll services and student enrichment. OCDE also provides direct educational services and support for the county’s most vulnerable students through its alternative and special education programs.

A version of this story originally ran in 2022.

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