Wednesday, March 24, 2010

WASC Sting Averted

I've had to remove myself from my dating scene in order to complete work on our school accreditation, cryptically known as "WASC." Western Association of Schools and Colleges is the organ's proper name. This organization verifies and upholds the quality of diploma-granting schools. To a school as small as mine, a pair of WASC reviewers was dispatched.

Going through an accreditation is like planning a wedding. Backward design, or setting the end-goal first, that joyous day of affirmation, then allows you to align the months' preparations leading toward the big event. Our school sought a three-year validation of our programs. That's because the last time we were visited, we did not receive the highest seal, the six-year clear term. Oh well. What could we do but use the interim to refine our practices?

No one can say it's been easy, moving continuation school aggressively into standards-based instruction. Data is king nowadays. We've had to retool our teaching in order to generate more of it. Now the data pops up like crabgrass. The data has to be collected and interpreted to drive classroom practices. I accept that data now features in my life, just as a colonoscopy does: each beneficial and each to be endured with grace.

But let's get real. The part that interests me in this whole self-study process is the people. A WASC visit typically runs for three days. Day 1 is a Sunday reception for parents, students, and staff. Days 2 and 3 are classroom visits, interviews, and conclusion-writing. I almost think Day 1's gathering was the most profound of the three, because students and parents testified as to the effect the school has had upon them.

One mother stood to explain how very stressful it is as a parent to keep hearing that your child is failing, your child will not graduate on time, your child is off track at the big school. She told us that now she receives heartening phone calls from our school, telling her about credits earned, improved attendance, her daughter's involvement in extra-curriculars. Another mother echoed this by reminding us all that at the big school, her son was relegated to a sort of permanent underclass of non-achievement. Now to her great delight,he stays after school to volunteer on committees, he's applied for a scholarship, he's certain to graduate by June. Yet another speaker was a lovely girl who has just completed her credits and graduated. She recalled how all her teachers knew her name by the first week. And that daily, as she got off the bus, there were always three or four adults there to say good morning and encourage everyone to have a good day. When she said, "No one gives up on us here. My English teacher sat with me to do my FAFSA because I had no one to help me," I couldn't help but well up. To me, that's the job. But maybe to a student it really is crossing a little Rubicon with adult guidance.

We will not really know the full outcome of this visit until June. Our sense and of course our hope run positive. The pair of reviewers were keen observers of our process. They understood that our students are among the most fragile. But all of our community is held accountable. Back to creative aspirations on a shoestring and other California realities.

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