O.C.'s No. 1 high school: Misunderstood


February 11, 2011

CYPRESS � Make no mistake about it � Oxford Academy is a shining star of the U.S. public education system, a testament to the bold wisdom of clustering top-performing students under one roof.

This visionary institution consistently ranks as one of the top 20 public high schools in the nation � the fourth best, according to U.S. News & World Report; the 11th best, according to Newsweek.

By the numbers

1,015: Total number of Oxford Academy applicants last year

163: Number of applicants residing in the school district but attending a public school outside the district

92: Number of applicants residing in the district but attending a private school

Educators routinely visit it from all corners of the globe � China, Korea, Australia, Europe � seeking to unlock the secrets to its success. U.S. charter school operators have repeatedly tried to replicate its curriculum.

The Orange County Register has named it the No. 1 public high school in Orange County for three of the past four years, including this year.

Yet Oxford is also one of the most misunderstood schools, its faculty says. It's derided as an elitist institution, envied for purportedly stealing the best and brightest from across the Anaheim Union High School District, disregarded for lacking a breadth of sports and extracurricular programs.

The Cypress school, which serves students in the seventh through 12th grades, is rarely even visited by other Orange County public schools, administrators say.

"I think it's funny when people say we have all these special kids � we have 11-year-olds," said Oxford's head counselor, April Hancock, who has been at the school 11 years. "That doesn't exactly scream Rhodes Scholar."

Indeed, Oxford is hardly a school that attracts, or is able to accommodate, all of the brightest students from across the 33,000-student district it serves. Virtually all students are admitted to Oxford at age 10 or 11, while they are still sixth-graders in elementary school. The school only admits eighth- and ninth-graders if someone drops out; after ninth grade, students who leave are not replaced.

The school's initial screening process merely requires applicants to be designated "proficient" on the California Standards Tests, a designation achieved by about half of all students statewide.

Oxford's ability to attract the brightest is further hampered by the fact that it can only admit about 200 students per year, and these students must come in equal numbers from the eight geographical areas that make up the 46-square-mile district.

In other words, Oxford must reject dozens of applicants who are more qualified than the ones it admits, simply because the school is required to accept the top 25 from each geographical area.

With sizeable numbers of students coming from poverty-stricken areas such as central Anaheim, the academic differences among admitted students can be an entire grade level, said Oxford Principal Kathy Scott.

"We don't get all the best kids," she said, "and to schools who say we do, I tell them: 'If you only have 25 kids who are bright at your school, then you need to go check your teaching methods.' "

Even as Oxford lacks the luxuries and wealth that many assume it must have, the 12-year-old school has managed to find a perfect recipe for success, far surpassing the performance of schools in highly regarded areas like Irvine, Los Alamitos and Fullerton.

Oxford's Academic Performance Index score � an overall gauge of a school's scholastic standing � was 984 out of 1,000 last year, the second highest high school API score in California. Its closest O.C. competitor, Troy High in Fullerton, had an API score of 918.

Oxford officials say their winning formula is simple: a small, nurturing school of choice that begins in the seventh grade, an unrelenting push to perform academically and a tunnel-vision focus on getting into the best four-year colleges possible.

"It gets challenging here, and it's not for everyone," the principal said. "Some of them don't want to work hard to get a B or a C, but we say, 'Pay now, not later.' The best feedback we get is from our alumni telling us how easy college is."

The school loses only about 10 students annually for academic reasons, despite a rule that junior high students maintain a 2.5 GPA, freshman and sophomores a 2.7 GPA, and juniors and seniors a 3.0 GPA. Last year, the school lost 12 students whose GPAs slipped.

"I don't want to be at another school," said junior Ryan Ly, 16, of Cypress, who has been on academic probation twice but squeaked by both times. "I'm worried about getting into my top colleges, but I don't regret going here. The competition here is crazy, so you stop caring about just grades."

School officials say Oxford benefits tremendously from admitting almost all of its students as seventh-graders. Teachers have a full two years to bring them up to Oxford's high standards, before they reach the critical high school years. Meanwhile, the school's relatively small population helps prevent kids from falling through the cracks, officials say.

The curriculum also is vertically aligned, meaning the middle school curriculum is designed to prepare students for the rigors of Oxford's high school. In fact, faculty members are encouraged to teach both middle and high school classes.

Oxford teacher Cathy Larson, who teaches both seventh-grade English and 12th-grade Advanced Placement English literature and composition, says her students benefit from this approach.

"It gives me perspective on how far they've come and how far they need to go," said Larson, who has been at Oxford for four years. "We all want to understand what's happening to these students at each grade level. We have an opportunity to create a foundation, to make sure everyone is up to speed, and from that we build."

Cary Hairabedian
Cary Hairabedian