Santiago Charter Middle School Forges a Pathway of Unparalleled Success

February 22, 2016

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A lot has happened in education since Santiago Charter Middle School opened its doors 21 years ago. As the first charter school in Orange County and the 66th charter school in the State of California, Santiago set the pace for schools across Orange County and throughout the state. Whether it's being the first school in the area to require students to wear uniforms or transitioning from a semester to a trimester system, Santiago is known for its groundbreaking achievements.

Despite having more than 1,000 students and housing only 7th and 8th grades, Santiago's class sizes remain smaller than many neighboring districts while offering more electives and activities. Santiago's philosophy is to expose students to as many curriculum opportunities as possible so what they love can then become a career pathway, said James D'Agostino, principal of Santiago Charter.

Electing a Path of Success
A Santiago student's day includes seven periods, two of which are designated for electives. When other schools were leaning away from after-school activities, Santiago is embracing them. Electives are a regular part of the curriculum and give students the chance to explore everything from foreign languages to guitar to art and home economics. There are more than 20 electives to choose from, including woodshop, which has become all but obsolete in other schools.

"We have kids who thought they could never do woodworking, and then they go on to study engineering in high school," D'Agostino said. "We just introduced a STEM lab this year, and we do a lot of articulation with local high schools so the students can feed into those programs."

Santiago's student population is diverse, pulling from private schools and other feeder schools. One of the school's hallmark programs is "Discover Santiago," which allows kids from other schools to experience Santiago. Seventh graders start school one day early to allow time for campus tours, team building and other activities.

The Power of Teachers and Project-Based Learning
Santiago embraces the power of project-based learning in order for students to really understand abstract concept. For example, when kids learn about Japan, they are not only studying the country's culture, politics and geography, they create a tea ceremony in the library and invite parents to serve tea and observe. The school hosts Renaissance Fairs where kids dress up in period costumes, or recreate the Civil War while studying that time in United States history.

Santiago's history department is known nationwide for its creative project-based approach to learning. Marissa Mallory is a seventh grade World History teacher who has been teaching at the charter school for 14 years.

"The history department had the Buck Institute train us on project-based learning," said Mallory. "We do an iPad movie where the kids chose something they've learned, and they make a five-minute documentary about it and present it to other kids. In the eighth grade, students create a law project in which they research how laws are made, and decide on what a law would be to help society and then present that to seventh grade students."

D'Agostino and the Santiago staff have also put a lot of effort into character development. "We tie two things into everything we do: character education with STRIVE assembly and citizenship where we tie in values they need to be a good community members," said D'Agostino.

Involvement in the community is also a point of pride. "We are very involved in the community, and regularly partner with different local business," said D'Agostino. We are involved in GRIP (Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership), and have a strong partnership with Ford and Anaheim Angels through GRIP."

Santiago's diverse student population, passionate teachers, strong leadership and innovative approach to learning all contribute to making the charter middle school an unparalleled learning experience.

"Santiago is an amazing place," said Mallory. "The collaboration and emphasis on student learning at Santiago is something I've never seen at other schools."