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10 years of a dream

Private, nondenominational high school turns 10 with alumni, parents and students in attendance.

October 29, 2010|By Tom Ragan, tom.ragan@latimes.com
  • TEN YEARS IN THE MAKING: Head of School Gordon McNeill, and board chairwoman Vicki Booth cut the Sage Hill 10th anniversary cake during a celebration Friday.
TEN YEARS IN THE MAKING: Head of School Gordon McNeill,… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

NEWPORT COAST — It usually takes one person to catalyze a movement, but it takes a group of people to pull it off.

That's Dori Koll's synopsis on how Sage Hill School, a small private high school she helped found, opened its doors and corridors 10 years ago this fall.

After all, the high school, whose unofficial motto is "a place where it's cool to be smart," started out just as an idea in the mid-1990s when Koll and her then-husband, Dr. Jamie Caillouette, discussed ways they could change the academic landscape so that their four children, and others like them, might have a different kind of education.

But dozens of donors came forth and contributed $40 million in three years. They were swayed by Koll's vision to found a private high school that would not only attract a diverse student body but teach students the importance of public service.

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On Friday, the high school, with its 400-plus students, celebrated the 10th anniversary of its founding with a birthday cake in the quad. More than 700 people, including parents, teachers and alumni, showed up for the occasion.

Headmaster Gordon McNeill said he was proud of the Sage Hill staff and community for "fulfilling the vision of its founders."

But lost perhaps in the moment was the great amount of risk that went into the creation of a private high school in the backyard of two high-performing public campuses, Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor high schools.

Koll, a Newport Harbor graduate and Lido Island native, said that something still seemed to be missing along this stretch of the Orange Coast — a private, nonprofit, nondenominational high school.

"I looked around and found that there were all sorts of these types of schools across the country," she said. "There were about 70 of them in Connecticut alone, and Orange County's about as big as Connecticut. And yet here we were, and we didn't have a one."

Today, students come from all over O.C. and as far away as Long Beach and Los Angeles, said school spokeswoman Torrey Olins.

The teacher salaries are on par with Newport-Mesa schools and in some cases up to 20% higher, she said.

Tuition is about $27,000 a year.

Students tend to go onto regionally and nationally known colleges, including Stanford, USC, Chapman University, and New York University.

While at Sage Hill, alumna Carly Edelstein created an after-school program that helped at risk elementary students.

"Sage ensured that I became an adult who could speak up for those less fortunate than myself," she said.

Eventually, she went on to attend Stanford and enroll in Teach for America, where she taught sixth-graders in Los Angeles. Now a student at UC Irvine School of Law, she said she owed a debt of gratitude to Sage Hill, where she was introduced to public service.

"Teaching in a low-income community seemed like a natural progression in my desire to create a public service career," she said.

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