In a break from past opening day schedules, Oak Ridge High School started on Thursday last week. First period was crossed off the schedule, allowing plenty of time for some old school social networking in the quad, where the impromptu reunion included chest thumps, gossip and lots of hugs.
The overall atmosphere was one of anticipation and excitement.
Unlike past years, most teachers were outside their classrooms — active participants in an upbeat opening act designed to hang out a “welcome” sign on El Dorado Union High School District’s top ranked school.
Despite the best efforts of the LINK Crew and a thorough freshman orientation, the first-years wandered about in a daze, fiddling with lockers and trying not to look lost.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, seniors strode confidently though the quad. Many made the predawn trek up to Kalithea Park for “Senior Sunrise,” a symbolic opening to their final year at Oak Ridge.
Glen Swedelson, Oak Ridge’s first and longest standing counselor, praised the late start, which gave students extra time to find their classes and each other.
Another tradition fell on Thursday: Swedelson showed up without a necktie for the first time in 30 years.
Principal Steve Wehr, along with teachers and staff were all wearing Oak Ridge blue T-shirts with “Respect for all” emblazoned on their chests, signaling a new attitude on campus.
The back of the shirt clarified timing and logistics: “It starts here. It starts now.”
Two midday assemblies drove home the point.
“‘Respect for all’ is about how we engage each other and honor our differences,” said Wehr. “This is a school-wide effort to be more welcoming and encourage students to respect each other.”
The program promotes tolerance, respect and acceptance over bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Swedelson framed the program as a reaction to isolated problems last year, “nothing school-wide, but we wanted to be proactive,” he said.
The administration formed a Community Culture Task Force made up of students, parents, teachers and members of minority communities in El Dorado Hills.
It includes training in cultural sensitivity for teachers.
“Teachers stood up and decided to do this,” said Swedelson. “That makes it a totally different message.”
And a timely one because Oak Ridge’s current 20 percent minority population is slated to increase, according to a US News and World report.
In a district facing a projected 3.9 percent enrollment decrease this year, Oak Ridge’s enrollment is holding steady at a projected 2,240 students in 2012-13.
The curriculum is also stable. For the first time in several years, a new class is being offered — 20th century history and film. Importantly, it was recognized by the University of California.
Strong, stable enrollment, combined with college-minded students allow the administration to offer a total of 18 Advanced Placement subjects again this year. Most of those classes qualify for college credit.
As a result, “We have kids leaving here as college sophomores,” beamed Swedelson.
Oak Ridge students took 1,047 AP exams in the 2011-12 school year, almost half of the district total.
A full 98 percent of the 10th graders passed the California High School Exit Exam on the first try, compared to 82 percent state-wide, according to Swedelson.
Oak Ridge scored a district-best 879 on the Academic Performance Index in 2011-12, narrowly besting Ponderosa’s impressive 857 score and behind only Rocklin’s 880,Vista Del Lago’s 881 and Sacramento West Campus’s 897 in the region.
“The API is a good measure of achievement, but it’s just a number,” said Swedelson. “We recognize that there’s much more to a school than three digits.”
District Superintendent Chris Hoffman and Assistant Superintendent Chris Moore were on hand Thursday, talking about the Measure Q-funded improvements completed over the summer, and already planning for next year.
Construction activity at Oak Ridge was tame compared to recent summers in the post-Measure Q era. Portable classrooms were refurbed. The quad got a facelift. The derelict tennis courts were ripped up in favor of pickle-ball courts and 40 much-needed, new parking places in the east lot were added. The lot was also repaved.
In April the north wall of the gym will be pushed back 35 feet to make room for bleachers.
The final $15 million in Measure Q bonds just sold, said Hoffman, enough money to fund another round of modernization to the older campuses, plus a system-wide data wiring upgrade over the next two summers.
Security cameras will be installed in high-risk areas — the “hot-spots” for vandalism and trouble of each of the four large schools, he said.
Swedelson said he worried about the potential impact of $3.3 million in trigger cuts to the district if Gov. Jerry Brown’s taxes aren’t approved in November. “We have reserves, but that’s $3.3 million every year, so it will trickle down to the kids.”