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MBEP MEMBER SPOTLIGHT:

Santa Cruz County Office of Education

Supporting Equity and Innovation

Education is the key to opportunity, and creating the educational opportunities that allow all students to thrive is at the core of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education’s mission.

Ten public school districts and nearly 40,000 students in Santa Cruz County fall under its jurisdiction, as does the responsibility for providing business support, technological resources, professional development, credentialing, and a range of instructional and leadership services to schools, students, and staff.

Innovation is key to addressing a wide range of goals, and the needs and challenges that arise from the pandemic and the impact of the CZU Lightning Complex fires on Santa Cruz County.

One of those has been bridging the digital divide: As schools shut down in-person instruction last year, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education worked tirelessly in partnership with Cruzio Internet, school districts, and community organizations to connect student households that lacked internet access, and the CEO continues working to address the remaining gaps: According to the COE, 3% of Santa Cruz County students still don’t have home connectivity.

“It’s something that we’re very proud of, in collaboration with the districts and Cruzio,” says Dr. Faris Sabbah, County Superintendent of Schools. “One of the big goals we have is to bring broadband connectivity to 100 percent of our community.”

As Santa Cruz County rebuilds from last year’s devastating fires, Sabbah said there has been renewed focus on embracing new opportunities for students, particularly in supporting career and adult learning services and educational pathways, spurred in part by significant investments from the state of California.

“There has been a big investment from the state in career and technical education and the promotion of pathways that are articulated with the community colleges and universities,” said Sabbah. “I think there is a deeper appreciation for those sorts of skills sets that would help students, both the academic and skills sets, that will help students to be successful in their career pathways.”

The COE plays dual roles, he says, supporting school district career and adult learning programs as they develop and collaborate on pathways, particularly in the area of information technology and computer science, and in building pathways of its own to equip all students with skills they need to succeed in the future workforce.

The success of the Career Advancement Charter highlights how the COE strives to serve the unique needs of all its students.

Launched in 2017, the independent study program serves adult learners working to earn their high school diploma while gaining academic and technical skills that will lead to college and career readiness. The program works within the community and also within the county corrections system and probation department to reach students who, for a variety of reasons, haven’t succeeded in traditional school models, says Dr. Sabbah.

Career Advancement Charter has evolved to meet additional student needs, adding free childcare services, free dinners for students and their families,  ESL and primary language literacy classes for the wider community, and a bilingual digital literacy course focusing on job training.

To meet the needs of working students, classes were offered in the evening, and instructional staff had flexible schedules to better serve the needs of their adult learners. Bilingual career coaching, employment support, college registration support, and marketing and recruiting in areas such as Watsonville, where significant numbers of adults had not completed their high school diploma, have also played key roles in building up the program.

It comes down to building support systems and removing barriers so that each student can succeed, says Sabbah.

“What has resulted from that is that we have been able to graduate about 300 students in the past few years,” he said. “Without that support, these are students who might not have been able to attain a high school diploma and develop some of those career skills.”

With courses in Construction Technology, Hospitality and Culinary Arts, Computer Applications and Agriculture, Medical Assisting, and Dental Assisting, students not only earn high school diplomas but also develop skills that can get them hired and moving forward.

Helping students achieve sustaining employment is one of the charter school’s goals, and Sabbah said the school is working with the county and local industry to establish a pre-apprenticeship program in the building trades.

“Our focus on equity cuts across everything that we do,” says Sabbah. “We believe that part of our role is to address the inequities that exist and provide opportunities for students that may not have those opportunities based on race, your zip code, your immigration status: Those have a huge impact on the kinds of opportunities you have.

We believe education has the ability to break through those disadvantages.”

That focus is at the heart of the County Office of Education’s strategic plan.

“It really guides us in all our work,” says Sabbah, “and I think that is something that is at the heart of what education is about.”