Thurston, high school named 'distinguished'

It's been quite a year for Thurston Middle School.

Fresh off receiving a Schools to Watch designation, the hillside campus was one of two Laguna Beach Unified School District schools named a California Distinguished School.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced the honorees, all public middle and high schools throughout California, in a news release via email Thursday. Laguna Beach High School also received the honor, which recognizes schools for their commitment and innovative approaches to improve students' achievements.

This is the fourth time Thurston has received the award and the third time Laguna Beach High has been named. Both schools earned the honor in 1996. The awards started in 1986. The award rotates every other year, covering elementary schools one year, and middle and high schools the following year. Schools may apply for the award every four years.

"These schools have gone the extra mile to provide high-quality instruction that puts their students on the right path toward career and college," Torlakson said in the press release.

Schools go through a rigorous application process that includes a site visit from a team of educators. Each school is required to submit two of its signature practices.

At Thurston, signature practices include: cross-curricular meetings, which occur every six weeks, Principal Jenny Salberg said. Teachers of different grade levels and subjects meet to discuss classroom strategies. For example, a sixth-grade science teacher can meet with an eighth-grade language teacher.

"This is recognition of the hard work and complete efforts of the entire staff," Salberg said. "We focus on the whole child, meaning social and emotional development are as important as academics."

Thurston's other signature practice is multi-tiered systems of support.

"This process asks, 'What is an extra step of support our students need?' Is it academic, social?" Salberg said.

Laguna Beach High also has multi-tiered systems of support for one of its signature practices. A team of teachers, counselors and a school psychologist work together to match the problem with an intervention, said Laguna Beach High Principal Joanne Culverhouse.

Laguna Beach High's other signature practice is including special education students into general education classes for all grades, Culverhouse said.

Five educators from the Orange County Department of Education visited Laguna Beach High School last month and said they were impressed by what a group of students revealed about their teachers.

Officials asked students to describe their teachers in one word. Students responded with: caring, pride, amazing, helpful and build confidence.

Cathy Wietstock, OCDE's manager of instructional services, was one of the five officials who visited Laguna Beach High.

"[Laguna Beach High] has consistency in instruction, academic rigor and the connection each teacher has with students," Wietstock said.

Thurston and Laguna Beach High were two of 26 Orange County schools, and 218 campuses statewide to receive the Distinguished School award.

An awards ceremony will be May 21 at the Irvine Marriott, Salberg said.

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