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By Collin Breaux | @collin_breaux

Whether Briseis Valenzuela hops on her computer for online classes or attends school in person, she’s had a chance to learn about geometry, the Industrial Revolution, climate change, and literature.

Briseis, 15, from Laguna Niguel, attends Orange County Academy of Science and Arts (OCASA) College Prep in San Juan Capistrano. The new public charter school, which began in August, gets students ready for college and careers with a curriculum that includes projects and one-on-one mentorship.

“The projects are 70% of our grades, so it’s kind of a big deal,” Briseis said. “They’re definitely engaging. Some of them are hands-on, like the mock trial. It’s like an experience. We get to show our skills throughout, in our final product.”

OCASA College Prep is on a small campus behind Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, tucked away in an area off El Camino Real where they’re surrounded by other tiny schools. The campus has a basketball court and an outdoor lunch area, and currently serves grades 6-9. Doreen Fioretto, the school’s founding principal, said they eventually plan to go up to the 12th grade.

Doreen Fioretto, founding principal of OCASA College Prep, said the school teaches young students cognitive skills that give them confidence as they reach new grade levels. Photo: Collin Breaux.

“We have an individualized program, so the students have the ability to work at their own pace,” Fioretto said. “We focus on cognitive, real-world skills for our students.”

Their students have moved on to higher levels of education with a sense of preparation and confidence, Fioretto said.

“We expect a lot out of our students,” Fioretto said. “This is an extremely rigorous curriculum.”

The mentorship aspect creates a point of contact for parents, Fioretto said. Cognitive skills that students learn include developing strong writing skills and learning how to be persuasive.

“They do like two to three projects a semester, so you can imagine how many pieces go into that as they build all the way through,” Fioretto said. “They’re supported through classes, so teachers are there every step of the way.”

Capistrano Unified School District has been supportive of the school, Fioretto said. The school chose to set up in San Juan so they could be in “the heart” of the school district.

“Our passion is to make sure we have a community school, and as we grow, we are in the center of a community where this can become more than just a school,” Fioretto said. “We want to build it to where it’s a community center, and people can come on the weekends and evenings.”

OCASA College Prep currently has approximately 120 students. The school looks to double that number next year, Fioretto said. Open enrollment is underway and runs through March 1. Families can do a virtual tour and open house, and check out the admissions process, at ocasacollegeprep.org.

As with everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected operations. Currently, students are connecting with teachers through online learning only. The school previously used a split model in which a limited number of students attended classes in person. Children who were on campus will be able to return starting on Jan. 25. Kids have their temperature taken when they enter the classes, hand sanitizer is available, and the campus is regularly cleaned.

A classroom at OCASA College Prep is empty during the COVID-19 health crisis, as students instead take virtual classes from home. Photo: Collin Breaux.

“Because we have to socially distance, I can only have 16 students in a classroom,” Fioretto said. “It’s definitely a challenge. We’ve installed Google Meet hardware in all of our classrooms, and that allows our students who are at home to participate with students in the classroom.”

Briseis prefers learning in person, because she finds it easier. Students may stay muted and have their cameras off during virtual classes, she said.

“(Online learning) is different, because you’re not there with the teacher,” Briseis said. “It’s kind of hard to communicate with them and really get into learning with them.”

Physical education teacher Christopher Iorio is also trying to adjust to an odd time. He sat alone in a classroom while teaching a student through a laptop when The Capistrano Dispatch toured the campus. In the midst of the global health crisis, this is his first year with OCASA College Prep.

“It is a totally new experience. I never thought I’d be teaching online P.E.,” Iorio said. “It’s frustrating for me, and it’s taken a toll.”

Christopher Iorio, who teaches physical education at OCASA College Prep, talks with a student through online classes during the global pandemic. Photo: Collin Breaux.

Iorio has different exercise assignments for students each week, which range from pushups to yoga to “Minute to Win It” activities. Iorio used to teach swimming classes and other regular sports activities in Los Angeles, and he originally got into teaching physical educationbecause he doesn’t like to sit still—an inclination that can go against the grain of the coronavirus era.

“I think P.E.’s importance is huge (during the pandemic), because kids need to get their heart rates up,” he said.

Iorio feels the San Juan community has welcomed the new school with open arms, and he loves walking around the historic town. Given California’s array of outdoor scenery, Iorio likes to teach activities that kids can do without being on a team and that they can do throughout their lifetime, including rock climbing. That could encourage them to join a gym later on when they enter college, he said.

Erin Kolk, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science, said the pandemic has been the most difficult time she’s had in her 20-year teaching career. Kids are not always able to focus as much while at home, she said.

OCASA College Prep, though, is helping students become organized and self-driven, Kolk said.

“They rise to the challenge, and I think they will become better for it,” Kolk said.

OCASA has another campus in Laguna Niguel called OCASA Charter, which opened in 2016 and serves grades K-5. Fioretto said classroom collaboration fosters emotional and social skill development.

“The teachers have been amazing and very helpful throughout this whole pandemic,” Briseis said. “They make sure we understand the concepts and that we’re on track with our work.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com

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