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“The School of Education is honored to partner with Anaheim Union High School District to build on its stellar programs and forward-thinking efforts to improve the student learning experience for the school district and beyond,” says Frances Contreras, dean and professor of education and co-principal investigator of the project supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Chris Lee

Years of emphasizing high-stakes tests may have dampened the joy of learning and, some argue, insufficiently prepared students to thrive in a modern workforce that values innovation and creativity. Some schools have implemented practices like capstone projects, ePortfolios and work-based learning programs designed to give students a sense of purpose in their learning and equip them to succeed in their future careers or college pursuits.

But do these promising programs have the intended effect? And what can schools learn from others who’ve tried them?

UCI researchers aim to answer those questions through a collaborative research project with Anaheim Union High School District, thanks to a $1.1 million grant over three years from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – the foundation created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his spouse Priscilla Chan.

“We cannot understate the importance of this grant, not just to our district, and to our 27,000 students, but to all students, especially low income and students of color,” said AUHSD Superintendent Michael Matsuda.

More than 70 percent of AUHSD’s students come from economically challenged backgrounds, and reflect the diversity of Orange County: 67% identify as Latino, 17% as Asian American, 8% white and 2.2% African American.

Through a number of programs, the district aims to help students develop more holistic learning experiences, support student agency in their learning process, and develop a deeper understanding of how what they are learning in school connects to issues they care about in their lives. These practices include developing ePortfolios that encourage students to reflect on what they’ve learned, work-based learning programs that build bridges between school and career pathways, and senior capstone projects where students make connections between their education and issues that are important to them personally.

“Student agency and self-efficacy are vital to a student’s education and learning in school. Successful programs like those offered through the Anaheim Union High School District will have a lasting impact on students as they prepare for college and their careers,” said Frances Contreras, School of Education dean and professor, and the research project’s co-principal investigator.

“The School of Education is honored to partner with Anaheim Union High School District to build on its stellar programs and forward-thinking efforts to improve the student learning experience for the school district and beyond. This partnership exemplifies how a collaboration works to co-design and apply cutting-edge research to practice to transform educational efforts to benefit students,” she said.

The grant from CZI will provide funding for AUHSD to expand their existing programs throughout the district, while also bringing in UCI researchers to evaluate the impacts, refine the practices, and share the findings with others.

“Major questions remain about how to best implement these programs and what kinds of impacts one might expect from successfully enacting these kinds of practices,” said June Ahn, associate professor of education and one of the lead researchers on the project. “Our partnership will work from what AUHSD is already doing, to help provide an evidence base that other districts can build from as a model.”

That principle is at the root of the research collaborations undertaken by UCI’s Orange County Educational Advancement Network, which Ahn founded and directs. Not only will the research team aim to measure the impacts of AUHSD’s programs and suggest improvements, but also to shed light on key factors that will help other schools and organizations in the area implement similar programs.

“A major goal for the partnership is to highlight innovative practices that districts might pursue to help promote student agency, self-efficacy towards academics and career development, and sense of belonging in school,” Ahn said.

With the grant, AUHSD formally joins UCI’s OCEAN, a series of local partnerships that aim to improve education through collaborative research. Co-principal investigators Ahn and Dean Contreras will work with AUHSD leaders including Matsuda, Amy Kwon, Director of Innovative Programs and Instructional Systems, and Amanda Bean, Director of Career Preparedness Systems Framework Implementation.

“This partnership with UCI will support collaborative research linking AUHSD’s drivers to better prepare students for college and career success that lead to purposeful and meaningful lives,” said Matsuda. “For too long the system has focused on standardized metrics, which are not aligned to workforce and career development needs.”

By giving a greater voice to students in Anaheim and beyond, researchers hope to spark a love of learning and a sense of empowerment that will last well beyond the school years.

-By Christine Byrd

About the UCI’s Brilliant Future campaign: Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The School of Education plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting: