It began with a plan

Eddie Chen is a high school superstar, a Stanford-bound hip-hop dancing pro recently named among 20 Presidential Scholars in the Arts throughout the U.S.

He gives a lot of credit to Irvine schools.

“I owe so much to the empowerment they gave me to get me to where I am today,” Chen says.

The city’s accomplished class of 2024, whose many stars we profile inside, testifies to a high-achieving educational system, including one of California’s top 10 public school districts and a public university ranked 10th in the nation. That, in turn, owes to more than 50 years of foresight, beginning with a master plan.

An intellectual proposal

In 1971, Irvine Company gave Orange County leaders a blueprint for the new city of Irvine. It was designed from the start as a “city of intellect,” with villages surrounding public schools and radiating out from the new University of California campus. Eight years earlier, when the Master Plan was still on the drawing board, a Time magazine cover story praised its visionary design of a new “center of learning.”

Thus began a virtuous circle for a city that has drawn an unusually well-educated population. Roughly 7 in 10 adult residents of Irvine have a college degree, while the city continues to attract parents who prioritize high-quality education for their children.

“My parents heard about Irvine while they were still living in Kansas City, Missouri,” Chen says. “Our relatives in California had told them about Irvine’s great schools, so they stopped here when they were looking for a new home. The schools were definitely a reason for their decision to move here.”

Happy parents make for energetic school boosters, and in Irvine’s case, they have joined local businesses in providing key financial support for the Irvine Unified School District.

Over the past two decades, IUSD has received more than $140 million in private donations, including Irvine Company’s nearly $50 million commitment over 20 years to the Excellence in Education Enrichment Fund, which supports art, music and science education in elementary schools.

Those resources help the district afford important extras, such as after-school and summer programs and college and career-readiness counseling. And outside of the district, other academic opportunities abound. Heather Chen, Eddie’s twin sister, says she took eight classes at Irvine Valley College while attending Irvine High, pursuing interests including sign language.

Stellar recruits

The reputation of Irvine’s education helps attract world-class teachers.

Eddie Chen vividly remembers the difference skilled teachers made for him at Westpark Elementary School.

During recess in fourth grade, while fellow students were playing sports or socializing, he’d be practicing his dance moves. “I had always gravitated toward this art, but it was harder for my peers to understand the joy it brought me,” he recalls.

That changed after his fourth grade teacher, Cathy Turner, took time out from the class schedule to gather Chen’s classmates to watch him dance, he says.

Turner, a UCI alumna who has since retired, had previously worked at Sierra Vista Middle School and Greentree Elementary School. “Irvine schools did an amazing job of training us when we were popping out of grad school,” she says. “The early leaders had a clear idea of what they wanted excellence to look like, and it was all about academic rigor. They especially did a good job of making sure we knew how to work with gifted kids.”

“The early leaders had a clear idea of what they wanted excellence to look like, and it was all about academic rigor.”

Cathy Turner, retired Irvine teacher

Turner, who now lives in Sun City, Arizona, remembers Chen as very precocious and animated.

“One of the things that mattered to me was trying to find that spark. What do they love? What matters to them? And how could I find a way to make that important?”

Chen recalls his performance as forging a bond with his friends and his teacher. “The cheers and support from my classmates made me beam and showed me how art can bring people together.”