Aurora High School students volunteer at a farmworkers breakfast in Calexico. Aurora was recognized by the state Department of Education as a Model Continuation High School recently for the third time, it was announced in a March 4 press release. | PHOTO COURTESY OF AURORA HIGH SCHOOL

Calexico’s Aurora, E.C.’s Desert Oasis Schools Recognized by State

CALEXICO — For the third time in a row, Aurora High School has been designated as a Model Continuation High School by the California Department of Education.

The three-year designation follows similar recognitions the high school received in 2015 and 2018, as well as a previous nine-year run between 2004 and 2013.

Aurora is joined in this distinction in the Valley by Desert Oasis High School in El Centro. The Model Continuation High School designation is the second such recognition for Desert Oasis.

Both schools were among a 27 continuation high schools in the state that were recognized for the respective services they provide at-risk youth through instructional strategies, flexible scheduling, guidance, and counseling, the California Department of Education announced on March 4.

The entrance to Aurora High School in Calexico is shown. Aurora was recognized by the state Department of Education as a Model Continuation High School recently for the third time, it was announced in a March 4 press release. | PHOTO COURTESY OF AURORA HIGH SCHOOL

“Through the work of dedicated teachers and administrators, model continuation schools provide the students they serve with new academic opportunities that can change the course of their lives in high school and beyond,” state Superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a March 4 press release.

Aurora High senior Ernesto Ramirez said he definitely considers himself a student who has benefited greatly from attending a continuation high school.

The 17-year-old said he enrolled at Aurora about a year and a half ago after having fallen behind in classes at Calexico High. Even prior to attending Aurora, friends of Ernesto’s who had transitioned from Calexico High to Aurora before he did would often praise its impact on their lives.

“They said teachers were more passionate about their students and more passionate about teaching,” said Ernesto, who plans to continue his higher education after graduation with the aim of eventually enrolling in medical school.

He, too, would come to appreciate the extensive “hands-on” approach his Aurora High teachers employed, and more so when the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to transition to distance learning and which slightly decreased Ernesto’s own level of engagement.

“They just provide the best methods to teach us,” Ernesto said, “even if they have to stay after classes to tutor their students.”

The benefits of teaching at a smaller campus with smaller class sizes are evident to Aurora High teacher Arturo Medina Sr., who had previously taught at Calexico High, as well as adult education in a smaller setting.

“We get to know (the students) very well, and they get to know us on a one-to-one basis,” Medina said. “They feel more secure and we’re more available to them.”

Aside from teaching United States history and social sciences, Medina recently started teaching a music appreciation class, where students had the opportunity to learn to play on a keyboard, guitar, and electronic drums.

The class was well received by students but has been challenging to transition to distance learning. A new online application that was recently purchased should help with that transition, Medina said.

“We were having great fun and success with the class,” he said, adding that such opportunities are largely owed to the support of the campus and district’s administrators.

The state’s designation of Aurora as a Model Continuation High School is just that: a team effort that no one individual deserves all the credit for, said Aurora High special education teacher Cinndy Yepez.

Aurora High special education teacher Cinndy Yepez (right) is shown interacting with some parents in this 2020 photo. “We have a wonderful and nurturing environment to offer many students who are looking for a second chance,” Yepez said of Aurora, which was recognized by the state Department of Education as a Model Continuation High School. | PHOTO COURTESY OF AURORA HIGH SCHOOL

The California Department of Education recognition should also go a long way toward further helping dispel the misperception that Aurora High, or any other continuation high school, is solely for “bad kids,” Yepez said.

“We have a wonderful and nurturing environment to offer many students who are looking for a second chance,” she said. “And being able to help them in that stage in their lives is just very rewarding.”

Her experience at Aurora High has been so rewarding that Yepez’s standard response to requests that she transfer to another site has been an emphatic “No.”

At Aurora, Yepez is among the 11 teachers who provide instruction for some 150 students this year. The campus provides instruction for ninth- through 12th-grade students and houses the Calexico Unified School District’s adult school and community day school.

Its support staff includes one counselor, a psychiatrist, and 13 classified personnel. Last year, it graduated 77 students, said Principal John Moreno.

The timing to apply for the three-year model school designation coincides with the campus’ accreditation process and allows staff to evaluate its programs and data to determine if any improvements can be made.

“Those two kind of go hand in hand,” Moreno said.

Aurora High School students paint fire hydrants in Calexico as part of a volunteer project. The school was recently recognized as a model school for a third time. | PHOTO COURTESY OF AURORA HIGH SCHOOL

The state recognition is a testament to the efforts of the campus community, Moreno said, and is especially welcome at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has upended traditional school operations.

“This is part of our ongoing education,” he said.

The Model Continuation High School Recognition Program is a collaborative partnership between the California Department of Education and the California Continuation Education Association Plus. Statewide, there are more than 400 continuation high schools that serve about 50,000 students, the CDE reported.

The recognition is the second time in the last six years that Desert Oasis High School in El Centro has earned the distinction, said Principal Fernando O’Campo.

Desert Oasis was singled out by CDE in its March 4 press release for maintaining a community mentor program comprised of local professionals, including many law enforcement officials. The law enforcement mentors participate in activities with students that focus on team building, collaboration, and trust, CDE reported.

Additionally, the campus has implemented Advancement Via Individual Determination system schoolwide, offers dual enrollment courses with Imperial Valley College, partnered with the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program to offer services and courses, as well as a Career Technical Education emergency responder pathway and a mock trial team, O’Campo said.

“Our school mission is to offer opportunities to all of our students to be college and career-ready by bringing programs into our campus that provide these opportunities,” he said in an email Wednesday, March 10.

“We will continue to be innovative as a school and bring more opportunities to all of our students by providing services and programs that will benefit the students and the community.”

The campus has 13 teachers, two counselors and 145 students. Its graduating class of 2020 consisted of 30 seniors.

“We are delighted that our school is recognized for its tremendous work,” said Central Union High School District Superintendent Ward Andrus in a written statement. “Even in the pandemic, the teachers, counselors, and all staff have worked diligently to provide the best quality instruction and be supportive to our students’ needs. They have set the pattern and precedent for what we strive to be. We are ‘Committed to Excellence’ and DOHS has proved it again.”

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