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Elite Private High School Set for Newport

Sage Hill School will stress academic excellence with a strong emphasis on learning by serving outside the school.


A group of educators and moneyed philanthropists will break ground in November for an independent, nondenominational high school.

Plans call for the Sage Hill School, to be located in Newport Beach near the Irvine border, to be a state-of-the-art academy--yet with a strong emphasis on learning by serving outside the school.

Students will be expected not only to volunteer their time for the betterment of the larger community but also to show how they are learning from community service. School officials already are discussing volunteer options with nonprofit organizations throughout the county.

But for the most part, Sage Hill will rely on the formula that traditionally draws parents to private schools: a college-prep program with high standards and smaller class sizes.

The latter issue has been a particular problem in the county's public schools in recent years, with a burgeoning number of students that is expected to rise yet further.

Sage Hill's classes will average 15 to 20 students, organizers say. Class sizes in public schools have been approaching 40 and sometimes go even higher. The school will have 450 students.

"We will be a school that stresses academic excellence, and we will prepare our students for the finest colleges and universities in the country," Head of School Clint Wilkins said. "But we will also stress small class size and the fundamental importance of the relationship between the teacher and the student."

Although the elite school and $25-million campus are likely to attract well-to-do students, organizers say they are seeking a diverse population and will offer hefty financial aid to students who need it.

"We are interested in diversity in all senses of the word: economic, religious, cultural diversity, diversity of temperaments and talents," Executive Director Karina Hamilton said.

Bringing together different kinds of people, though it can create difficulties, is a central part of Sage Hill's mission, Hamilton and Wilkins said.

"Those difficulties can turn into opportunities, profound opportunities that you will not get in any other way," Wilkins said. "I think sometimes 'community' doesn't mean peace in the kingdom; it means working out issues and conflicts and coming to consensus--and that can be arduous and time-consuming."

The school already has received a $1.5-million grant that will be used exclusively for financial aid, she said.

Wilkins, who has a lengthy background at prestigious educational institutions including the Sidwell Friends school in Washington, D.C., said the community service aspect of the Sage Hill education is an example of the core values that attracted him to the school.

"We will integrate service into our school culture. We will want to know what are students learning from their service? How do they articulate what they've learned? How does it affect their values and how they lead their lives?" Wilkins said.

Wilkins' background is one of Sage Hill's main selling points.

"In the case of Sage Hill, there are people who are very knowledgeable and understand about outstanding schools, and they have a good blueprint for the growth of the school," said Mimi Baer, executive director of the California Assn. of Independent Schools.

The association, which is based in Santa Monica, has 165 members statewide. Typically, it accredits a school six years after its founding, when it has a track record, she said.

"In Sage Hill's case, while we won't do it earlier, it already has a track record in that the head of the school has been head of several independent schools; in this case one should feel very optimistic about the success of the school," Baer said.

The campus is scheduled to open in September 2000 to ninth- and 10th-graders, adding 11th- and 12th-grade classes in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

Why found another elite school in an area that already has several excellent ones?

Dennis Collins, president of the San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation and one of the founders of the academically elite University High School in Oakland, said there are never too many good schools. In addition, Orange County's prep schools tend to be associated with particular religions, such as St. Margaret's in San Juan Capistrano, an Episcopal academy, or the Jewish day school Tarbut v'Torah in Irvine. Unlike such areas as the San Fernando Valley, Orange County has relatively few private prep schools.

"We have a strong interest in Orange County because that's obviously the birthplace of the Irvine Co., and the school is actually on land that was once part of the Irvine Ranch," Collins said.

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