WASC accreditation process allows school to assess progress and set goals

November 25, 2019 — by Isaac Le and Anna Novoselov

Most of the time, students, teachers, administrators, support staff and parents hold distinct yet interdependent roles in the working of a school. 

But during the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process — which happens every few years at schools — students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and parents collaborate on a single task: evaluating the school and offering input into what can be improved. The process at SHS began last spring with multiple meetings involving dozens of contributors and has continued during six morning collaboration periods this semester.

The school has received maximum-length six-year accreditations in the past due to very positive reviews and hopes to do so again this time. Each accreditation involves compiling a 300- to 400-page document that includes a chapter describing each of the five focus areas — mission and governance, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school culture and personal growth — as well as chapters for the school profile, a progress report detailing steps taken since the last WASC visit, and a schoolwide plan that details the school’s next steps for improvement. 

In the spring, a group of visiting teachers and administrators will evaluate the report and determine whether the school should be accredited. 

“[The process] is an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on the work that we do to try to improve it and learn from each other — from our students, parents, colleagues and administrators — about how we can make Saratoga the best school it can possibly be,” said English teacher Amy Keys, who is the school’s WASC coordinator this year along with assistant principal Kerry Mohnike. 

Each focus area has a team of 25 to 35 people composed of students, parents and faculty from different departments. The teams have collected evidence by designing and giving surveys, observing teachers in their classrooms, interviewing students both individually and in panels and trying to assess the daily functioning of the school. Students and parents volunteered to be in these groups.

“The student groups have done an excellent job reviewing the surveys and creating a list of school strengths and areas of needed growth,” Monhike said. “Those lists are used in conjunction with the parent and focus group surveys to get a fuller picture of where we are as a school and to help frame the direction we want to head. Student voice in this process is critical and highly valued.” 

Other topics that the study considers include facilities and safety, tutorial effectiveness, academic integrity, transparency and communication, collaboration time, course availability and selection, student health and happiness, as well as connections to life, career or ongoing education beyond high school.

Senior Jolyn Tran, who is part of the student portion of the instruction focus group, decided to participate in the accreditation process because she wanted to work with teachers outside of a classroom setting. Her focus group discusses how the skills students learn at school help them transition into college and the adult world as well as how the instruction students receive in classrooms applies to their lives.

Tran said that she enjoys getting an “inside view” into how teachers craft their curriculum and decide on classroom activities. 

“I used to think that teachers just taught us what needs to be taught for the AP test or for exams, but they are trying to provide the best curriculum they think will help their students succeed,” she said.

Tran said that hearing many different perspectives from parents, teachers, and other students while assessing the school has helped her become more open-minded while stating her ideas during meetings taught her to be more outspoken.

“The teachers respected my opinions and allowed me to gain the confidence I need to speak out more,” she said.

Tran hopes that this WASC cycle will bring more attention to mental health. While the school’s decision to move CASSY to the center of campus has decreased the stigma surrounding mental health, she said that there is more work that needs to be done in that area.

Mohnike said that the school will use the produced report to decide what areas to focus on for improvement in the next few years.

“We have currently created a master list of areas of strength and areas of needed growth that we will use to set priorities and create an action plan around for the coming school year,” Mohnike said.

This action plan is in the process of being completed in the next few weeks and will seek to reflect the needs and voices of the students and faculty. A WASC visiting team consisting of six to eight people made up of teachers and administrators from different schools will visit the school from March 22-25, read the report, assess the school and facilitate the creation of the action plan. 

According to Monhike, the WASC accreditation is required to certify schools as an official high school diploma granting institution and to designate school units as valid for college admissions to the Accreditation Board and the California Department of Education.

Even though the California Department of Education mandates that schools undergo the WASC accreditation process, Keys said that the people involved try to make it a key part of the school’s growth as a school. 

“It’s really not just about the production of the report,” Keys said. “It’s a required task, but we try to turn it into something that lets us stop and take stock. If you don’t stop and reflect, you might keep on making the same mistakes or you’ll run headlong into something, thinking that this is what we have to do, without having examined the evidence and the data.”

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