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A Little Bit of Oxford in an Urban School

Public Anaheim Union district establishes a campus with a strict focus on meeting high standards and getting into college. Those who can make the grade are sure it's worth it.


At this public school, everyone aims for college. The students all wear "academic attire," even self-conscious teenagers. The admission price is a top score on a standardized test. The ticket out is one too many Cs.

Many parents brave the morning freeway gantlet to ferry their children to campus. They sign contracts promising to limit TV time and participate in school activities. Students vow not to grouse about a ton of homework each night.

This is Oxford Academy, a new college-preparatory public school that will teach grades seven through 12 in one of Orange County's most diverse urban school districts.

It's too soon to tell if the Cypress school will succeed in sending all its graduates on to college. But the school, in its first year, already is a success in the arena of public opinion: Over two recent Saturdays, a total of 450 sixth-graders have queued up to take a standardized test for the right to attend Oxford this fall. Only 200 will be admitted.

"It wasn't as hard as I thought," said Erica Quinn, 11, after finishing the three-hour exam.

Quinn, of Cypress, said Oxford will be more stimulating than other local schools because the students are motivated to do well. "I don't want to be stuck anymore in a class where the teacher has to explain things over and over again," she said.

The 32,000-student Anaheim Union High School District, to which Oxford belongs, copes with its share of educational woes.

Half the students speak a language other than English at home. Almost half the pupils are poor enough to get school lunch free or at a discount. SAT scores are below the national and county averages. Three out of four Anaheim-area graduates lack the courses necessary to get into UC schools.

School officials might be forgiven if they used tough demographics to justify lowering the academic bar. Instead, Oxford Academy raised it.

"I know there are some kids who are just not going to go to college--but it won't be because of us," said School Board President Harald G. Martin. "We're making sure that the educational atmosphere and the necessary resources are available to help a student who wants to go to college get there. I don't ever want to sell anybody short--regardless of what his background is."

Even though he's only in eighth grade, Essam Ulhaq knows he's headed to college. Absolutely. No doubt. Wearing a navy school-logo sweatshirt, the 14-year-old speaks more like a high school sophomore.

His course work is similarly accelerated.

Essam is a whiz at simplifying radicals. Typically, algebra is reserved for ninth grade, but under new state standards--and Oxford policy--it is tackled a year earlier. To help struggling students, teachers are available for an hour after school and by appointment on weekends.

Built in 1960, Oxford's campus operated as a junior high for two decades until enrollment dipped. Anaheim school administrators shuttered the campus in 1980 and leased it out. Last fall, administrators reopened the site on Orange Avenue as Oxford Academy to alleviate overcrowding districtwide.

After bandying around the idea of making Oxford a magnet for the arts or liberal arts, trustees settled on a high-standards magnet for any student in the district able to do the work. The school has 400 students in the seventh and eighth grades now. Each fall, another grade will be added until the school is full at 1,000 pupils in the 2002-03 school year.

Oxford's curriculum is designed to meet UC requirements. Electives will be geared toward the health sciences and international business. Advanced Placement offerings will be plentiful, as will chances to take classes at Cypress College, Principal Thomas Peters said.

"A typical Oxford student is what I call focused," he said. "Ninety-five percent of our kids will go on to four-year or community colleges. Their parents want a traditional setting. About 15% are students who have returned to public school from private school."

To keep the focus firmly on academics, all students must wear "academic attire," a modified school uniform of closed-toe shoes; khaki or navy pants, skirts or shorts; and shirts with the school name stitched on them. No denim or revealing garb is permitted.

Although Oxford parents and teachers brim with pride about their school, discontent simmers among some Anaheim teachers elsewhere.

They worry that Oxford is skimming the cream of the district's student population, which might one day make a very real difference to schools as the state will use test scores to rank California's campuses. Those that don't fare well could be punished financially.

"The fear is that students at other schools could be penalized," said teachers union President George Triplett. "This is no fault of Oxford's. But the new legislation rewards schools with students who are able to take tests well."

Oxford math department Chairman Charlie Bialowas doesn't deny it.

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