When Samueli Academy launched six years ago with its first class of 120 freshmen, the campus consisted of portable classrooms on a mostly empty lot where Santa Ana Hospital once stood.
By year three, the public charter high school had its own state-of-the-art academic building — and even greater ambitions for the seven-acre site.
Those plans are now a step closer to being realized. On Thursday, Samueli officials held a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction on three new buildings that will substantially expand the school’s footprint along North Fairview Street — and its capacity to serve disadvantaged students throughout Orange County.
The new additions, depicted in a striking rendering of a fully realized Samueli Academy, include a building that will allow the school to accommodate seventh- and eighth-graders, a Student Innovation Center with a cafeteria and student union, and, marking a first for the county, an on-campus residence for foster youth and other students who lack stable housing.
“For years, we’ve all envisioned a completely built-up campus for our students,” Executive Director Anthony Saba said, “and with these three next buildings, we’ll be very close to our goal. Hopefully you got a chance to see the (rendering) on the front here. This campus, we’re using every square inch of it, and it’s going to be amazing.”
Suffice to say, Samueli Academy has come a long way from the concept that was conceived about 10 years ago under the leadership of philanthropists and Orangewood Foundation board members Susan Samueli and Sandi Jackson. The two women were concerned then about the high school graduation rates in some Orange County communities — and particularly among foster youth.
The academy, considered a program of the Orangewood Foundation, opened in August 2013 after receiving its charter from the Orange County Department of Education. While it specifically targets foster youth and students from low-income families, it serves about 500 students from a variety of backgrounds, offering engineering and design pathways.
On Thursday, Saba proudly rattled off some impressive facts and figures about the school, noting its 98 percent graduation rate, its 100 percent graduation rate among foster youth and the fact that 96 percent of its graduates enroll in college.
“We’ve sent 250 graduating seniors to community colleges, the military, to universities near and far,” Saba said. “We’ve guided children, who didn’t think they would graduate from high school, to successfully graduate, and now go on to college.”
And there was another accolade that he was able to add to his remarks at the last minute. Samueli Academy was just named among the Best High Schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report, ranking No. 101 in California and No. 721 nationally.
Now new facilities are coming to complete the campus. Built in partnership with HomeAid Orange County and Lennar, they’re expected to open their doors to students in the fall of 2020.
Orangewood Foundation CEO Chris Simonsen said the road to get to this point has been long and challenging, twisting and turning through site plans, reviews, legislation, approvals and refinements dating back to 2011. But this was a moment to celebrate.
“You are sitting on the very spot where some of our foster youth students will be living in less than a year and a half,” Simonsen said.
Carol Garcia, who graduated from Samueli in 2017, was one of three current and former students to speak at the ceremony. She said she only wished the on-campus housing had been an option when she attended.
“It’s hard to think about school when you’re always struggling to find where you’re going to be staying at,” she said. “The residential (building) will benefit every foster youth, find them a place to stay, to get help, and to be stress-free.”