Samueli Academy: Foster children find a home at this state-of-the-art campus

A dozen and a half foster children attend this Santa Ana campus – a school that looks private but isn’t.

Samueli Academy wants more foster kids, with some even living here: There are plans to build on-campus apartments for 60 to 80 of them.

This 3-year-old high school, which unveiled its state-of-the-art building just months ago, is the first in Orange County with a focus on serving foster kids.

“It just pulls at my heartstrings that there are children out there who don’t have what my kids have or what your kids have,” said Susan Samueli, vice chairwoman of the academy’s board of directors.

The school also serves the low-income neighborhood that surrounds it and children from across the county, who all can get a top-notch, free education with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, says Anthony Saba, Samueli’s head of school.

“In this country, the quality of one’s education should not be set by the family’s income,” Saba said. “We’re giving a top education that every kid deserves, from a facility standpoint to a curriculum standpoint to a school culture standpoint.”

The academy, a public charter school, had been in the works for years.

Susan Samueli and Sandi Jackson, local philanthropists on the board of directors of the Orangewood Foundation, a support group for foster children, wanted to do something special for them.

Only 54 percent of California’s foster youths graduate from high school, while 50 percent experience homelessness, according to the academy’s leaders. In Orange County, they said, there are about 2,500 foster children on any given day.

“There are some foster kids with great foster homes or who end up with grandparents who do a great job,” Samueli said. “But the ones who are falling through the cracks are the ones we want to help.”

At the Samueli Academy, a coordinator is assigned to students in foster care. She coordinates court dates and appointments with social workers, homework or anything else.

“A lot of them call her Mom because she’s so close to them,” said Pam Shambra, Samueli’s capital campaign director.

For now, about 17 of the school’s 375 students are in foster care. That number is expected to grow, especially if the housing is built.

The residential buildings would each have three floors, with no more than 10 students living on each, staffed by a couple overseeing the children. The boys and girls would reside on campus during the weekdays and head off to foster families for the weekend, or stay on campus the entire week, Samueli said.

Orangewood Foundation’s first fundraising campaign for the school brought in $25 million, with Henry and Susan Samueli donating $10 million. The couple own the Anaheim Ducks.

That $25 million paid for the 7.1-acre parcel on Fairview Street, the temporary campus that opened in 2013, the new 30,000-square-foot academic building that opened in the fall and a community center that houses a medical clinic.

In the near future, Saba said, a feasibility study will be conducted for a campaign to add the housing, additional classrooms, a student union with a theater, and a cafeteria.

Next school year, the academy will max out at 500 students, with its first graduating class of seniors. Most students, at least 80 percent, come from the surrounding neighborhood.

At Samueli, the students’ learning is project-based. The school’s approach is interdisciplinary.

Graduation requirements include a 40-hour summer internship between the junior and senior years. The Samueli Academy helps set up the interviews and facilitates the internships with banks, nonprofits and engineering companies.

“It gives you a feel for how to work in the real world,” said Ivan Mendoza, a junior who lives in Santa Ana.

After their first year, students choose from two pathways: design or engineering. Classes are small, 20 students per teacher.

“This school is worth the trip,” said Jordan Horita, a junior who lives in Buena Park. “The school gives you a real-life, real-world perspective.”

As the school grows, so does its popularity.

Foster children, and siblings of current students, are automatically admitted. Others must apply through a lottery. Next year’s freshman class is open to 120 new students.

About double that number have applied for one of those spots.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7829 or

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