Laguna High in line for state honor

Laguna Beach High staff and students have been in a tizzy this week, preparing the school for a visit by a group representing the California Distinguished School award program.

The site visit is considered a perfunctory final step in the meticulous award process, in which the top 5% of the state’s public schools considered to be most “exemplary and inspiring” are honored.

It’s been more than 10 years since Laguna Beach High was given the award. In that golden year, 1996, it also held the coveted national Blue Ribbon school designation.

Since then, the school has failed to obtain either.


The visitors are set to arrive today and will be escorted around the campus by students and administrators.

Many schools turn the visit into a production, Principal Don Austin said, serving delicious group breakfasts to butter up the visitors. But not Laguna Beach High, where the visitors will go straight into room observations. Austin’s goal is that they will visit every class during the day.

The goal of the visitors is to ensure that all information presented in the school’s application is valid, which doesn’t faze Austin.

“I think every reader will get the sense that I got — that this is a great place to send your kids,” he said.


To ensure accuracy, Austin said that every staff member was involved in the application process.

“It was a good chance for us to look in the mirror,” he said.

Although the application covered the school’s goings-on last year from September to December, Austin is quick to state that it’s not just a snapshot of a time period.

“It’s much bigger than that,” he said.

In addition to test scores and other metrics, the schools must display other exemplary factors that distinguish them.

“Nearly 500 secondary schools qualify test-score-wise,” Austin said. “But this school is so much more than test scores. That’s where I think we set ourselves apart.”

The school chose to focus on what it saw were its key differentiating strengths: active Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), strong foreign language instruction and a world-class performing and fine arts curriculum.

The PLCs are groups in which staff members can meet and continue to learn from each other and experts; nearly everyone in the district, from cafeteria worker to principal, belongs to at least one.


“I think that what we’re trying to develop here is the culture of continuous improvement,” Austin said. “Even the best is going to be revised and expanded. There is no ‘good enough.’ Even the best teacher on our campus should be learning.”

The staff also chose to write about the school’s past, present and future when they crafted the report.

Austin joked that many of his students had no clue about the extraordinary honor conferred by the award.

“They have the feeling that this happens all the time,” he said, laughing.

But he’s a little more aware of the honor.

La Sierra High, Austin’s previous school, missed out on qualifying as a Distinguished School nominee by one point.

“That stung a little bit,” Austin said.

The awards program, established in 1985, alternates biannually between elementary and secondary schools. Each award is valid for four years.


Thurston Middle School was recognized as a Distinguished School in 1996 and 2003; El Morro Elementary was recognized in 1987.

By comparison, science magnet Troy High in Fullerton has been recognized four times since 1988. McGaugh Elementary in Los Alamitos has also received it four times since 1993.

Closer to home, Newport Harbor High, El Toro High and Mission Viejo High have each received the designation three times.

In 2006, 45 elementary schools received the honor, including four in Newport-Mesa Unified and three in Ocean View Unified.

The program is different from the national Blue Ribbon Schools Program, which recognizes either dramatic improvement in schools with a heavily disadvantaged population or academic superiority, based on being in the top 10% in state testing.

Laguna Beach High was a Blue Ribbon school from 1994 to 1996; El Morro Elementary was honored as a Blue Ribbon school for the 1987-88 school year.

Last year, four Orange County schools were designated Blue Ribbon: Northwood High in Irvine, the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana, St. Cecilia School in Tustin and Troy High.

The Distinguished Schools will officially be honored at a statewide awards ceremony, where the state superintendent will present each school with a plaque and flag.

But Austin said the celebration won’t be as showy back at home.

“I’m not a big party guy,” he said. “There’s one thing we wrote over and over in our report: ‘We need to be better tomorrow than we are today.’ There is no finish line, ever.”