Beset by a rancorous teacher contract dispute, a lawsuit over a gay-straight student club and myriad board decisions that have proved controversial, the Orange Unified School District nonetheless nailed four California Distinguished School awards Monday.
It is one of the state's most prestigious designations, and only the Newport-Mesa Unified School District had as many winning campuses as Orange this year.
The news was especially welcome to beleaguered district officials.
"We are absolutely elated," Supt. Barbara Van Otterloo said. "It's a tremendous feeling to know that we represent excellence in education."
The awards, officials said, show that regardless of the outside issues affecting the district, students' education comes first.
"When our teachers go in the classroom and close the door, their mind is on the kids," said Ed Kissee, principal of Chapman Hills Elementary, one of the winners. "The bottom line is the quality of our school community and we're very, very focused on what's best for the kids at our school."
Outside the classroom, the district has been in a continual state of upheaval.
Contract negotiations between the teachers union and the board have been stalled for months. The board recently imposed a contract on teachers, who are fighting it on the grounds that the unilateral action is invalid.
Teachers union representatives could not be reached for comment Monday on the state awards.
In addition to the ongoing dispute over money, the district is fending off a lawsuit after it banned a Gay-Straight Alliance club at El Modena High School.
The Orange district's other distinguished schools are: Panorama Elementary School, Crescent Primary and McPherson Magnet School.
At Chapman Hills, Kissee said, students, teachers and parents have formed a powerful bond that focuses on the basics of education, underscored by a heavy emphasis on technology.
"But we also have a tremendous community spirit, and that sense of community is apparent as soon as you come on campus," he said.
Campuses are evaluated on academic performance, school standards, parent and community involvement and the use of technology.