2009-07-03 / Neighbors

Camarillo students still drawn to Newbury Park High School

Despite the fact that RMHS offers prestigious program, migration to Conejo continues
By Daniel Wolowicz camarillo@theacorn.com

Ask Dennis Sookikian whether his wife and he plan to send their two middle schoolaged sons to Camarillo High School and the father of four answers with an emphatic no.

Sookikian said he plans to send his two youngest boys to Newbury Park High School, where they will likely follow in the footsteps of their older brother, Alex, who is bound for UCLA in the fall.

Alex Sookikian, one of seven Camarillo residents named valedictorian at NPHS this year, opted four years ago not to attend Camarillo High School but instead to make the 20-minute commute to the Conejo Valley campus.

Half of Newbury Park High School's 14 valedictorians were from Camarillo.

Why did the Santa Rosa Valley Sookikian family trade the Oxnard Union High School District for the Conejo Valley Unified School District?

"We wanted Alex to attend the International Baccalaureate program," Dennis Sookikian said.

Developed in Switzerland in the late 1960s, the IB Diploma Programme is a twoyear curriculum designed to reflect an international education. Students take classes intended to give a global perspective in literature, chemistry, math, history, social sciences, foreign language and the arts.

Its U.S. counterpart is the Advanced Placement program.

Both programs give high school students the chance to earn college credits.

Newbury Park High School has offered the academically challenging IB program since 1996, and it has continued to attract Camarillo students to the Conejo Valley.

According to officials in both school districts, just over 200 high school students this year have requested to transfer from Oxnard Union High School District— which includes Rio Mesa and Camarillo high schools—to its Conejo Valley counterpart.

Janet Cosaro, assistant superintendent of instructional services with the Conejo Valley Unified School District, said 170 of those students—or 85 percent—requested transfers because of the IB program.

Cosaro said the remaining students transferred either because they preferred Newbury Park's block schedule, their parents were employed by the Conejo Valley school district or they had siblings who were in the district.

To help staunch the flow of students headed up the grade, Rio Mesa High School began its own IB program last year.

Ed Ransom, an assistant principal at Rio Mesa, said the IB program at Rio Mesa has about 270 students and attracts transfers from Santa Paula, Fillmore and Ventura.

"We're not having trouble filling the program," said Ransom, noting that statewide budget cuts have kept the Oxnard high school from expanding its IB program.

Despite the fact that OUHSD is faced with a shrinking budget and more students mean more state funding, Martha Mutz, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Oxnard district, said students heading to Newbury Park aren't being stopped.

"We don't deny anybody leaving," Mutz said. "People have a right to make that choice."

The Oxnard district has about 16,000 students, which means those leaving represent fewer than 1.5 percent. They take with them about $1.4 million in funding.

Cosaro said the Conejo Valley district does not recruit students.

"We know how it feels if someone is actively recruiting our students," said Cosaro, referring to the students siphoned from CVUSD by the Oak Park Unified School District, which openly seeks interdistrict transfers.

The Oak Park district attracts about 200 students from CVUSD, roughly the number of students the Conejo Valley district receives from Oxnard Union.

To IB or not to IB

Now that Rio Mesa offers the IB program, would those seniors who graduated this year have stayed at the local school or would they still have attended Newbury Park High School?

"I might have gone to Rio Mesa," said Geoffrey Douglas, who graduated as a valedictorian from Newbury Park High School last month.

Geoffrey, 16, began his high school career when he was 12. Even then, Geoffrey said, he knew he wanted to take part in the IB program at Newbury Park High.

"I thought it would be more of a challenge for me than other schools were," said the UC Santa Barbara-bound teen.

Katherine Light, who, along with her twin sister, Elena, went through the IB program at Newbury Park, said they would not have attended Rio Mesa even if it offered the IB program.

"I think what really drew my parents, Elena and me to Newbury Park was more the feel we got from the administrators and the office staff," said Katherine. "It was about the IB program, but my mom had gone to Rio Mesa, and she just thought that Newbury Park would be a better place for us in all aspects, not just academically."

Katherine will attend Georgetown University; Elena Light will go to Yale next fall.

Dennis Sookikian also said he would not send his children to Rio Mesa even though it offers an IB program.

"The goal of the Oxnard Union school district is to graduate students, not to prepare them for college," said Sookikian, whose oldest son graduated from Camarillo High School with A's and B's but struggled in college.

Mutz said that though Rio Mesa offers the IB program, local students requesting a transfer to Newbury Park high do so because the program is "established."

Mutz said she believes they leave the local district as much for perception as anything else.

"The rumor is that Newbury Park is a stronger school than Camarillo High School, and I personally think that there are programs at Newbury that aren't at Camarillo, but that Camarillo overall has a strong college prep Advanced Placement program, and I don't think families would be disappointed (to attend Camarillo High), but for some reason there's that word out there," said Mutz, who held a top spot in CVUSD for seven years before joining the Oxnard school district.

By the numbers Mutz said parents often point to the high schools' state test scores and argue that Newbury Park High School, with an API score of 843, outpaces Camarillo High, with a score of 797, and Rio Mesa's score of 712.

She said those numbers don't take into account the schools' low-income students and don't offer the entire picture.

"Low-income population doesn't always result in the highest achievement," Mutz said. "We're working at that. . . . But if you disaggregate that by income level, (the schools are) just as competitive. It's difficult to get past that perception, but I think you will find in our district programs just as strong as other districts."

To be sure, 35 percent of Rio Mesa's and 13 percent of Camarillo's students are considered low-income, as compared to Newbury Park's 10 percent. Rio Mesa has more English learners than Camarillo and Newbury Park high schools combined.

While Newbury Park and Camarillo high schools are ranked in the top 10 percent in the state, Rio Mesa ranks in the 50th percentile compared to other California high schools.

NPHS is ranked in the top 30 percent of similar schools; Camarillo is in the the 50th percentile of similar schools, and RMHS is in the 40th percentile.

Camarillo High was named a 2009 California Distinguished School. Newbury Park earned the state award in 2005 and was a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2006.

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