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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Biology teacher takes on new role as WASC coordinator

Jessica Li
Jennifer Lee sifts through information and drafts a report on Oct. 24, preparing for the upcoming midterm review.

Besides teaching this year, biology teacher Jennifer Lee is coordinating the school’s mid-cycle report as part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process.

As the accrediting commission for schools in the western U.S., WASC ensures that quality benchmarks are met in areas such as school culture, curriculum and effective instruction. The school’s WASC accreditation process has consistently resulted in the longest possible 6-year terms.  As part of the process, focus groups  — consisting of teachers, office staff and sometimes even parents and students — gather data to demonstrate educational standards are being met and pinpoint areas in need of growth. 

This year, with her new role, Lee oversees all five of the focus groups, which are led by teachers Kristofer Orre, Erick Rector, Faith Daly and Elaine Haggerty, Lauren Taylor and Megan Battey and Brian Elliot. In order to address a long list of WASC criteria such as equity and access to curriculum, school culture and environment, and parent and community engagement, Lee approaches the job by dividing and conquering — she delegates a portion of this list to each of the focus groups, tasking them to find and cite evidence for each of their assigned criteria.

Each group then has its own individual meetings several times a year where they look through comments from different departments across campus for the criteria they’re analyzing. Using these comments, they look for strengths and gaps or areas of growth.

During a data collection phase, the focus groups collect evidence — such as sample lessons, data spreads of students’ exam results and school posters demonstrating school culture and spirit — that speaks to the school’s success. This is in preparation for when a committee of WASC accreditors, who are often retired superintendents and current principals, will visit the school for a scheduled review in February.

“As the science nerd in me really likes data, it’s a great chance to look at data more closely, but in a meaningful way to our whole school community,” Lee said.

Lee graduated from Saratoga High in 2002 and earned her bachelor’s in Biology and Psychology from Stanford University. This year marks her 17th year of teaching; she first taught at Santa Clara High and Cabrillo Middle School for 11 years, then returned to LGSUHSD where she has taught Biology at both SHS and LGHS.

Lee has previously participated in WASC accreditation cycles as a focus group member. However, now as a coordinator, Lee dedicates her fifth period to overseeing WASC-related tasks such as gathering information, writing reports and directing WASC committee visits. 

As the facilitator, Lee’s job entails much of the preparation work behind the scenes. By providing all necessary slideshows, graphic organizers, documents, templates and instructions ahead of time, Lee ensures all findings from the focus groups are well organized. After the evidence is compiled, Lee is in charge of using the data to draft a report, have it reviewed by the focus group staff and take it to the final draft.

“Oftentimes people aren’t super thrilled to do WASC because it’s a lot of work and a lot of sifting through data. But I think what’s nice about it is it’s a chance to be really reflective about your school as a whole and a unique opportunity to see all the great things that are happening on our campus beyond what I normally would know just in the science department,” Lee said.

This year, Lee and other teachers are working on the WASC midterm review, which is a smaller version than the full review, where the school gives a general update on the progress they’ve made since the last full report. After she turns in the mid-term review, a new committee will visit and provide an updated progress report with extra feedback for the school.

Lee has encountered many challenges, one being filtering through large amounts of data to highlight important bits that show where the school needs to improve. For example, she sifts through the school’s results from the annual California Healthy Kids Survey — which collects data from students, parents and staff statewide about students’ health, behavior and school environments. Lee compares these datasets to data from other schools such as Los Gatos, Palo Alto and Cupertino and looks for any unusual trends or patterns.

“We pick certain topics within the data that have an interesting factor,” she said. “Let’s say both Los Gatos and Saratoga students rated this as a big problem, or there’s a big discrepancy where Los Gatos rated this really high while ours is low. We’ll look for interesting data points, and then dig deeper into those.” 

One issue that Lee and the WASC focus groups are looking into is poor student placement in multi-level courses. Under the current open access policy, students can choose whether to sign up for the  regular, honors or AP versions of courses — meaning that some end up going against their teachers’ advice and pick difficult courses that they are unprepared for.

Lee said that this is an ongoing problem that WASC, counselors and teachers have been battling for years, as they try to find the best way to advise students to ensure they place themselves in classes suited to them.

“The topic has come up in teacher and counselor discussions every year since it’s never been fully resolved. We revisit these types of topics during WASC reviews to monitor our progress and brainstorm future changes, whether that be a policy change or a different approach from our end,” Lee said.

While working as a WASC coordinator has its challenges, Lee nonetheless said she finds the experience to be tremendously rewarding, as it gives her the opportunity to interact with her fellow staff members and her own community.

“I get to work with staff from different departments, so it’s truly a neat way to be part of a broader project outside the classroom. I feel really lucky to have a chance to see the scope of our campus, something that I wouldn’t get to do otherwise,” Lee said.

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