La Cañada High School preps for WASC visit

Administrators, teachers and students at La Cañada High School next week will welcome some special guests — an accreditation team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

From March 17-21, the seven WASC members will visit every class and teacher, interview random students, visit with school board members, and scrutinize school systems and procedures.

As one of the highest-performing public schools in the country, a positive WASC report would complement La Cañada's impressive resume. A negative report could cast a pall over the centerpiece of the La Cañada Unified School District. But aside from extensive preparation, school administrators are trying not to lose any sleep.

“I've been to schools as a WASC member where they try and put on a show for the people,” said Jarrett Gold, the assistant principal of discipline, activities and athletics. “I think our view as an administrative staff is to show them who we are, and not put on a dog-and-pony show.”

La Cañada High, which opened in 1963, received its first WASC accreditation in 1968, according to David Brown, executive director of the accrediting commission who is also a former principal of the school. Its current accreditation is effective through the end of this school year, Brown said.

Gold, LCHS Principal Ian McFeat and Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction Jim Cartnal say they are not unduly worried about the upcoming evaluation, as the campus is prepared.

For the past two years — before McFeat came to La Cañada from Kentlake High School in Kent, Wash. — the school has worked on getting ready for this visit. And in December, the school released a three-part draft “Schoolwide Action Plan,” which is available on the district website, that identifies several key areas of need.

“The year before I came they were already laying the groundwork for this,” McFeat said.

As part of the self-study findings, the school presents a number of tasks to help the school improve. Tasks include making teacher collaboration time embedded in the school day, incorporating Common Core Standards into the current curriculum, identifying academically struggling students, researching best practices on intervention programs and strategies, and modernizing school technology infrastructure.

The LCHS administration team was joined by the school's WASC coordinators, Justin Valissidis, the English department chair, and Mike Upton, co-chair of the math department. The teachers' students also helped to create a professional-looking 148-document to present to the WASC team.

“I think it's important that we do something visually,” McFeat said.

WASC, whose nearest regional office is in Temecula, is one of six regional accrediting associations in the country. Besides accrediting schools that meet its standards, the purpose of WASC is to help foster an environment for school improvement.

The seven-person WASC teams are made up of educators — teachers, principals, assistant principals and even school district superintendents. Gold, who himself has been on 10 WASC team visits, most recently served as chairman of a WASC team that visited Apple Valley High School in San Bernardino County.

“So I'm familiar with it,” Gold said. “Yesterday we had a meeting, going over what the process looks like and what they should be expecting.”

Next week's visit is Cartnal's third WASC experience and his second with La Cañada, and he believes the school is ready. Most noteworthy, he says, is that the school has innovated interdisciplinary programs that foster instructional interaction between classes and subjects.

“We certainly made huge steps to build our student-teacher enrichment program,” Cartnal said.

“Our biggest push has been collaboration,” McFeat said. “Teachers have said they really want to work closer with one another.”

The administrators agree, however, that the one area the school needs to improve is technology. But technology takes money, and because of La Cañada's high-achieving students and community affluence, it ranks toward the bottom in state funding.

Except for the school's few weak spots, LCHS shines bright and clear in key areas. With a student population of 1,480, there are 1,083 in Advanced Placement classes. Among that total are students taking more than one AP class, McFeat explained.

“This is a culmination of a lot of work,” McFeat said. “It's just a reflection of the work we have been doing. It's a really important process for our school. It's good to have third parties come in and give us that perspective.”

“We're going to show our true colors,” Gold said.

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