By Kiara Kunnes, Staff Writer
Many Acalanes administrators, teachers, students, and parents spent months in meetings, helping analyze data for a written report, hosting focus groups, and compiling binders, all in preparation for the three arguably most important days for the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) since 2012.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) visited the district’s four major high schools, Acalanes, Campolindo, Miramonte, and Las Lomas, from March 12 to March 15 and observed them to see if they qualified for reaccreditation.
Accreditation is the process that determines whether a school has met and is maintaining high standards. Accreditation also allows high school students to receive credit for their diplomas.
WASC is one of the six world-renowned regional accreditation agencies in the United States, and is responsible for accrediting schools in California, Hawaii, as well as other countries.
A committee of six WASC commissioners, lead by Ralph Giannini, visited Acalanes to evaluate the school.
“The visit is really an opportunity for professionals in the educational field to come to Acalanes and independently verify that the self study report is indicative of what is actually happening at the school, as well as that all of the requirements in the self study report are met,” AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson said.
During the visit, the committee visited classrooms, held meetings with the staff, and interviewed students to better understand the school’s environment.
Acalanes was previously given a six-year clear with a three-year progress report, according to Nickerson. This means that Acalanes was given six years to work on their action plan. A six year clear is one of the longest periods of accreditation that can be given. An action plan is a goal based plan that WASC and the school collectively determine.
Normally, the WASC commissioners’ report of a school is a lengthy process. WASC have yet to announce Acalanes reaccreditation status, but according to Giannini, the overall the visit appeared to be a success.
“I would say we have found a lot of high energy here. A lot of students taking a lot of advanced math and science classes, a lot of students taking AP classes,” Giannini said. “A large percentage of Acalanes’ population is going to go directly to a four-year college or university.”
Although the committee had their share of praise for Acalanes, they still believe there are improvements to be made.
The WASC committee suggested that Acalanes work on implementing and investigating the use of project-based learning. Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills through investigation.
Student stress is another area in need of improvement, according to the Giannini.
“The number one item we are going to leave the school with is the need to deal with stress. We have seen a lot of stressed students, and a part of that is the competition,” Giannini said.
Student stress was also brought up in the student interview portion of the WASC visit. Junior Theresa Nevis was a selected student who was interviewed. Stress seemed to be a major issue that the committee focused on, according to Nevins.
“One main thing they focused on was how stressed the student body was, and if there are ways to eliminate or reduce that stress,” Nevins said.
The WASC committee compiled all of their recommendations into six critical focus areas. One of the primary focus areas is to “establish systems and policies to reduce student stress and implement a systematic structure for tracking and monitoring student wellness.”
Another WASC recommendation is to review and refine a shared vision and mission for Acalanes High School that is tied to the School Learner Outcomes and ensure commitment from all stakeholders.”
This means that the WASC committee suggests that the school update and revise their mission goal and vision for their school, according to Aida Glimme, former Acalanes principal and one of the current Associate Superintendents.
Acalanes will be incorporating these suggestions in their school-wide action plan, the final chapter of the required report that is to be submitted to WASC.
“[We have not begun] specifically looking at those six areas of focus, but I think a lot of those areas were already embedded in our action plan,” Principal Travis Bell said. “What we are doing is updating our action plan to make it more structured and accessible for our staff and our community.”
Prior to the WASC visit, Acalanes already had some of those specific areas of focus as their primary goals.
“We tried to key [the goals] into what we are moving towards. So looking at reducing students stress and implementing the block schedule well. Those are two goals that we really centered around,” computer programing teacher and WASC coordinator Daniel Appel said.
Appel, with the help of some other members of the Acalanes community, gathered information from meetings and data, and compiled it into a five-chapter report.
Before WASC came to visit in mid-March, the Acalanes community spent a significant amount of time preparing for WASC’s visit.
The school created focus groups in the beginning of the school year, which consisted of a committee made up of staff members, students, and parents to examine Acalanes’ organization, curriculum, instruction, assessments, and culture. These focus groups spend time analyzing everything from school policies to freshman needs.
They also interpreted data from previous surveys such as California Healthy Kids survey, the Challenge Success survey information. The overall purpose of these groups was to help brainstorm ideas on how to improve the school and assist in assembling the school wide action plan.
Prior to the WASC visit, Acalanes teachers were asked to assemble binders. Each binder had full class sets of three different assignments for every course he or she teaches. Then the teachers had to identify how those assignments met the student learner outcome. The Acalanes staff had given two Wednesday mornings, as well as prep periods to compile these binders.
During the WASC visit, teachers were instructed not to show movies or have students take tests, as the WASC committee wanted to see actual instruction, according to Bell.
Although Acalanes teachers had some guidance on the type of instruction they should use during the WASC visit, Bell encouraged the Acalanes community to not “perform” and be true to an ordinary school day.
“It can be nerve racking when you know that someone is there in an evaluative role essentially judging, so you might be on more heightened awareness. I am sure [WASC] knows that and consider that,” Bell said. “However, we really worked to tell our teachers to essentially ‘you do you.’ We are a great school, and we do not need to pretend to be a great school because we have this visiting committee that is coming.”
The Acalanes community is working hard to continue to make their school a better place, and Bell believes that WASC helps the school do so.
“WASC really enforces a site to look at data and reflect, and then make some decisions on how we want to be better, so we don’t just stay stagnant and are constantly improving,” Bell said. “Clearly Acalanes is a great school, but that doesn’t mean that we just get to sit back and not do any work to continue to improve.”