Liberty Ranch High School in Galt needs to continue creating a process to support struggling students both academically and socially. Officials at Galt High School have been directed to improve technology and try to boost math results. Meanwhile, Lodi High School is being asked to increase academic opportunities for its Latino students, who constituted about a third of the student body in 2010.
These are among the recommendations made by a group known as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, whose representatives regularly walk the halls of Lodi-area schools.
The association is small and relatively unknown outside of academic circles. But it holds substantial clout, providing perhaps the best, most impartial evaluation of how schools operate and how they can — and should — improve.
A WASC evaluation covers everything from the quality of computers and textbooks to the training and fitness of teachers and administrators. And the evaluation team reaches out to hear concerns from a spectrum of stakeholders, including students. (One Tokay student, for instance, told reviewers the school’s food was subpar and should be replaced by Applebee’s.)
The role of accreditation has taken on a stronger focus in recent years, as reflected by a threat to close San Francisco City College.
The Accrediting Commission for Community Colleges and Junior Colleges, a subdivision of WASC, has given the college eight months to prove it should remain accredited, and ordered it to make preparations for closure in July 2014 if it can’t meet expectations.
The stakes are high: Without accreditation, a school can not get financial aid and risks a profound devaluation its transcripts and ultimately diploma.
High school courses taken at an unaccredited high school may not be transferable to a college or university. And future employers may not recognize or validate a degree earned at an unaccredited college or university.
WASC acts in part as a gatekeeper for the University of California and California State University systems, according to executive director David Brown.
“They don’t have the staff or resources to go out and see if high schools have science labs and other things they claim they offer,” he said of graduation requirements needed to transfer to a college or university.
The group’s work also helps high schools improve the quality of the education they offer, according to Brown.
The reviews, mandated at least every six years, wind up informing a plan of action — and improvement
The accreditation process is a perpetual cycle of assessment, planning, adoption, monitoring and reassessment which includes follow-up visits and self study.
Final reports are written by accreditation committees whose members are usually retired or current educators.
“The end result is a document that is over 250 pages long,” Jamie Anaforian, a Tokay High School social studies teacher who chaired the Tokay’s self-study committee when the school received its six-year accreditation in 2012, said in an email. “I feel like I have published my first book. We spent 18 months doing this.”
The report includes recommendations regarding the school’s ongoing improvement.
“Many people believe that we can just do what we want and carry on with ‘business as usual,’ and that is not the case,” Anaforian said. “We are held to standards set by the California Department of Education and WASC to be sure that we are providing a legitimate and realistic education.
“Schools do not, and cannot, ignore their challenges and keep their accreditation, which means that the diplomas they issue are valid and accepted, contrary to what the public may believe.”
What’s in the report?
Because it is not a government agency, WASC is not required by law to provide these reports as a public record. However, local schools keep them on campus and supplied the News-Sentinel with copies of their most recent reviews.
After a detailed description of each school, including enrollment and student-teacher ratio, they mostly review programs and make recommendations.
In Galt, for example, Estrellita Continuation High School was challenged to increase the number of on-campus computers available to students for increased learning opportunities in its “Focus on Learning” 39-page mid-term review completed in April 2012.
Since the last visit in 2009, Estrellita purchased a mobile lab equipped with 15 computer stations, all with Internet capabilities. This portable recharging station includes 15 laptops with Internet and remote printing capabilities, which are now being used for a variety of student-centered activities including an Internet component in biology and earth science classes.
Additionally, the campus’ English classroom now has desktop computers with a central printer. English coursework includes Web-based research and the compiling of MLA-style works cited pages and footnotes.
Galt High School’s most recent WASC review was completed in 2011. The 106-page report was a self study where administrators take stock of what goals they’ve met since the last review.
Among those goals were raising test scores by changing computer software with hopes of increasing math proficiency, and expanding the teacher coaching program across all levels for English. WASC will review whether the goals were reached in the spring.
At Tokay, the staff has made considerable progress on the visiting team’s recommendations, Anaforian said.
The school staff created Parent Outreach, Technology, Professional Development and Tutoring committees. Parent Outreach is designed to increase parent involvement at school, while the Professional Development Committee addresses how to prepare for the new Common Core State Standards, and the Tutoring Committee has established a “homework help” program, Anaforian said.
Who receives accreditation?
Liberty Ranch High School in Galt received its initial WASC visit in 2009. During last school year, the school completed its full “Focus On Learning Self Study,” which included a site visit by a six-member visiting committee.
Principal Brian Deis says many campus stakeholders pushed hard on the study, which resulted in the second-highest accreditation term available: Six years with a one-day visit during year three, likely in 2015. The highest is a six-year accreditation with zero visits.
“Our (certified) action plan will be the guide we will follow over the next six years as the Liberty Ranch family works to make our school one that the community can be proud of,” Deis said.
Galt High School, entering year three of a six-year accreditation term, is preparing its mid-term update report this year and will have a one-day visit in the spring.
But public schools aren’t the only campuses to receive accreditation. All of Lodi’s charter and religious schools are also WASC-accredited.
St. Peter Lutheran School, for example, received its accreditation in August 2012 after going through the process for three years.
This stamp of approval is effective for six years, since the school earned the highest level of accreditation; others, like the new Rio Valley Charter School, may receive a shorter accreditation period since it is fairly new and will require more frequent visits, according to WASC. It is the only unaccredited school in the Lodi area, although it is in the throes of the steps to accreditation.
“It’s a several-year process,” Rio Valley director Joy Groen said.
A WASC team visited when the school was about a year old in 2011; the committee will visit in spring. “The whole accreditation is a never-ending process,” Groen added
WASC examines many, many schools but defrocks very few; only two or three out of an estimated 45,000 campuses lose their accreditation annually.
It appears none in the Lodi and Galt areas have ever faced those sanctions.
The value of accreditation?
The accreditation committee also handles confidential written complaints about schools it has accredited. These may include allegations of cheating on tests, changing student grades or reducing staff without proper protocol, Brown said.
If complaints are corroborated by WASC, the executive director may direct the school to respond. However, there are a number of issues or allegations that are not under WASC’s jurisdiction.
WASC does not handle legal complaints, instead directing those to attorneys.
“We are not the instruction police,” Brown said. “We care more about whether schools are helping children and doing what is right.”
In the end, WASC likes to hear that administrators and other school staff were able to use the accreditation process to re-establish campus priorities and redirect resources.
“The work is really done not by WASC, but by everyone in the education business,” Brown said. “We train teachers and administrators to go out, but their feedback is really peer-generated.”
Lodi Unified trustee Bonnie Cassel spent a year as the chairwoman of Bear Creek’s first accreditation study, when the school opened in 1995 and she was a teacher there.
“We did not have a history, so we did not know exactly what we had to do. We had to assess ourselves as a brand new school against the standards set by WASC. That’s where I grew to admire the process,” she said. “As a board member, now I place a lot on those studies to understand what schools are doing. It’s an honest appraisal.”
WASC’s standards have changed with the movement toward Common Core curriculum and growing use of technology in the classroom, but the logistics have not, Cassel said, adding that every faculty member still has to play a role.
Today, she encourages her peers on the school board not only to be aware of each school’s WASC process, but also of the results.
“The visiting committee is a neutral assessing party judging you against the same standards all other schools are being judged,” Cassel said. “Without WASC’s approval, you put your entire student body at risk to not be seen as legitimate in the eyes of colleges.”
News-Sentinel Staff Writer Ross Farrow contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.