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The Northwood Howler

The Student News Site of Northwood High School

The Northwood Howler

The Student News Site of Northwood High School

The Northwood Howler

The harsh reality behind Irvine schools dominating Orange County competitions

Keyur Joshi
DO BETTER NEXT TIME: The mantra of an overworked high school student who fails to see their effort pay off in competitions– but maybe it’s not entirely their fault.

You’re listening to the speaker list winners, crossing your fingers and whispering under your breath. You put your all into this competition. But the string of words following each name is the same every time: “…from Irvine Unified School District.” 

IUSD high schools have been dominating extracurricular competitions in Orange County for years, leaving students from outside districts struggling to meet what is deemed the standard for success. There is a distinct disparity between students from Irvine Unified School District and students from other school districts that places unrealistic expectations on both IUSD and non-IUSD students to perform at a high level in order to fit in with their peers. 

Recent examples include the Orange County Journalism Education Association competition, with Irvine schools like Woodbridge High School taking home the Best of Show for the Division 1 Print Edition award and both Northwood High School and Portola High School placing first in News and Yearbook Sweepstakes, respectively, for the second consecutive year. There hasn’t been a year when an IUSD school has not progressed to the Science Olympiad California state competition, and Northwood alone had 14 state qualifiers at the Orange County Speech League preliminary qualifying competition. Moreover, out of all the competitors (and winners) of the National History Day Orange County contest, only three schools were not a part of IUSD. 

Despite not participating in these popular competitions herself, Tesoro High School junior Nicole Empleo still struggles with the pressure that comes from attending a school in a district near Irvine.

“There’s a constant comparison to IUSD schools,” Empleo said. “We always hear about it; that they’re the best schools, they’re the feeder schools, they’re the most competitive schools, etc. Irvine is definitely more prevalent in everything and it’s always a fear of,  ‘Oh, what if I don’t get into a college because I don’t go to an Irvine school.’ People genuinely think like that.”

According to Niche’s 2024 rankings, Irvine Unified School District ranked No. 14 among 504 school districts ranked in California and is the No. 1 best school district in Orange County. This ranking was based on factors such as academics, teachers, clubs, diversity, college prep, athletics and administration.  

IUSD’s high ranking can mostly be attributed to the level of privilege and the socioeconomic status of families living in Irvine, most of which are from middle to upper class backgrounds that enable students to have access to additional support outside of school (e.g., tutoring services) and the means to travel out of state for competitions or pay high registration fees. The United States Census Bureau shows Irvine’s median household income to be $122,948, which is nearly $40,000 higher than the California average of $91,905.

While not all students in Irvine come from such backgrounds, these benefits can instill a sense of inferiority among students in other school districts who feel that they have a lower chance of success solely due to a lack of equal opportunity when participating in academic or extracurricular activities. 

These standards also have disastrous repercussions on IUSD students as well. The strong reputation held by IUSD schools sets unattainably high standards for all Irvine students to excel in every endeavor in order to match their perceived peers, resulting in many people viewing themselves as below average or a failure due to the high bar to meet in order to be considered successful. This leads to increased rates of school avoidance as well as depression and anxiety, according to Northwood mental health specialist Gina Cross.

“Kids think they should be doing better and that they are not achieving according to the standards they have set for themselves or that others have set,”  Cross said. “It’s easier for students to say ‘I just can’t show up’ because they don’t want to face, in their own estimation, the shame that comes with not performing according to whatever arbitrary standard is out there.”

The fear of falling behind instills the need to “catch up” in students, who often compare themselves to others as motivation rather than focusing on self-growth and improvement, which makes it even more difficult to recover when things don’t go according to plan. This inadvertently promotes a toxic mindset that fosters unhealthy competition between students within IUSD as each person tries to one-up the other with the belief that it will set them farther ahead when applying to colleges, raising the expectations students have for themselves and subsequently widening the gap between school districts.

“Being in this environment definitely puts a lot of pressure on you,” Science Olympiad co-captain senior Andy Gao said. “There’s this sense that you want to make your parents proud because of all the other examples of success you see around you.”

So while IUSD may be leading Southern California in academic competitions, it is imperative that we recognize the underlying inequity that exists within the system itself. As the pressure continues to mount every year to win the college admissions race, both students and educators must be aware of the messages they may be unconsciously sending through their involvement outside of school in order to ensure that no student feels left behind simply because of where they receive an education.

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About the Contributors
Raelle Tiong, Staff Writer
Raelle is a sophomore staff writer who has an unhealthy addiction to the cafeteria cinnamon buns. Her favorite things in life are as follows: British accents, crusty yellow dogs and taking nature walks. As an echidna puggle enthusiast, Raelle hopes to someday live in a mountainside cottage surrounded by those tiny (and adorable) baby anteaters.
Keyur Joshi
Keyur Joshi, Photographer
Keyur Joshi is a junior, photographer, and business team member for The Northwood Howler. Keyur is a fan of 80s and light rap music, and he often listens to music while working or when he has free time. One of Keyur's hobbies is competing in competitive robotics.

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