By Srinivas Balagopal
If you have ever walked into the Student Achievement Center during H period this year, you would have seen three people seated around a massive projected Google Doc. If you idly wondered what they were doing, go to pinewood.edu. Under the “Why Pinewood?” page, you will see a section called Accreditations, Affiliations, and Memberships. The very last hyperlink reads “WASC.”
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges is the organization that accredits high schools and colleges in California, East Asia, and Pacific countries. To us Pinewoodians, WASC allows our diplomas to be recognized by colleges and universities.
But WASC has more significance than letting the seniors graduate. The accreditation process serves as a self-study program for Pinewood to evaluate itself. Every WASC cycle spans six years on average; this year, Upper Campus is concluding its sixth cycle, with Lower and Middle Campus Curriculum Coordinator Laura Blotter, Upper Campus Curriculum Director Laurie Eickmeier, and Dean of Studies Laurie Wilson leading the way.
However, this is also the first cycle to encompass both Middle and Lower Campus.
“The action plan is creating and fostering a one-school culture,” Blotter said.
For several years, Pinewood has striven towards achieving a “one-school culture” in the hopes of portraying the school as a whole body, instead of three disparate campuses.
“Because you get siloed between the three campuses, it makes it natural for us to get hyper-focused on each campus,” President Scott Riches said. “What I’m excited about is [that] we are one school … in many respects, with culture and philosophy, but we can do a better job of transitioning between campuses for students and actually getting to know each other across campuses.”
A major step towards a “one-school culture” has been peer observations, during which teachers observe their colleagues at two different campuses. The peer observations have also provided teachers with the opportunity to observe other Pinewood students in various academic settings.
The Upper Campus administration is hopeful that the peer visits will not only continue but will also expand to allow teachers from different campuses to work together more closely.
“It’s going to move from just visits to collaboration. It’s one thing just to go see what someone else is doing, but then it’s the next step of working with those people to have a common scope … about what it is that you’re trying to do together,” Principal Gabriel Lemmon said.
When reflecting on Middle Campus’s first WASC accreditation process, Principal Sarah Haun too was grateful for the cross-campus interactions.
“Some of the highlights for me include formulating a tighter community and becoming closer with our colleagues at Lower and Upper Campuses which, until engaging in the WASC process, many of our faculty had not had the opportunity to do. For example, many of our Middle Campus faculty did not know that the Upper Campus facilities are leased to us by Palo Alto Unified School District and the variables to consider because of this,” Haun said.
Lower Campus Principal Karen O’Donnell particularly emphasized the endeavors Pinewood has taken to create more connections between Lower and Middle Campus, especially during students’ transition year from second to third grade.
“We have quite a few initiatives that have been in place for some time that bring the LC and MC closer together,” O’Donnell said. “Our end-of-year second and fifth grade Buddy Lunch and visit to MC, our second grade trips to the MC Imaginarium, our second-to-third grade transition meeting for parents, our second-to-third transition teacher meetings to discuss students, and our collaboration on DEAR [Drop Everything and Read] Day in March.”
In the same vein as O’Donnell, Haun is optimistic about the new changes Pinewood may execute to bring the three campuses, especially faculty, together.
“Finding more ways to come together on various projects – all will benefit from ‘putting our heads together’ and coming up with strategies that will inevitably further enhance an already strong and robust program,” Haun said.
But what does this “one-school culture” actually represent? Culture expresses goals through values, which is why WISCR plays an important role in WASC. According to Lemmon, WISCR is synonymous with “student learning outcomes” and is the lifeblood of all that is Pinewood; the accreditation process is an essential outlet for displaying those values. As students transition from Lower, to Middle, and finally to Upper Campus, they carry with them these values and consequently the culture that is inherently Pinewood’s. According to Riches, Pinewood is using the WASC process as an opportunity to expand and strengthen our key values.
Beyond the primary goal of fostering a “one-school culture,” the administration is anticipating several other positive changes to the Pinewood community due to WASC. One of these “action items” involves risk-taking at Pinewood.
“We’ve seen that the push on trying to obtain a grade sometimes overcomes the students’ desire to try new things out, to explore the desire to be curious,” Lemmon said.
The administration is spearheading an effort to remove “risk” from Pinewood’s vernacular to WASC, replacing the word with a phrase that is more fulfilling.
“We are de-emphasizing that terminology just because when we say ‘risk,’ it has a particularly negative connotation. But ‘growth mindset’ has a similar outcome with a positive affirmation,” Lemmon said.
Wilson hopes that this aspirational outlook of the “growth mindset” will create a healthier mentality among Upper Campus students.
“Ideally, we would like to see Upper Campus students be more willing to take intellectual chances and say something wrong or interpret something in an odd way,” Wilson said.
Additionally, Blotter and Communications Director Katy Wells have undertaken their own project under WASC: revising the school’s mission statement to better define who we are and why we exist.
“To begin the mission statement revision process, we elicited the input of our community of parents, faculty and staff, and students on Pinewood’s purpose, culture, and value,” Wells said. “We synthesized all of the feedback we received and came up with a new statement that we feel accurately and beautifully reflects the school’s true mission and purpose.”
Wells hopes to reveal and implement the new mission statement next year to succinctly describe Pinewood’s values.
So, what was that projected Google Doc that Wilson, Blotter, and Eickmeier have been actively editing? Without that massive Google Doc, formally called the “self-study” report, the accreditation process would not be possible. Compiled by Pinewood faculty and parents across campuses, this 300-page benchmark report encapsulates Pinewood’s assessment of its strengths and areas of improvement for the future.
“It was their job to put these home and focus groups together to put the skeletons together, and they’ve done an amazing job,” Riches said of Eickmeier, Blotter, and Wilson.
“We [have] to attest that it is accurate in what the strengths of the school are, where [it is] working on things, and that all of the parts that [the school is] describing are happening in the way that the report says,” Lemmon said.
The administration organized several Professional Development Days in the last year, full-day workshops intended for working on the report. The faculty was divided into home groups, comprised of individual departments, and analyzed student work to attest to the level of student achievement. Focus groups were then established, consisting of representatives from each home group.
“[Those days were] about … having all of the faculty in one place together talking about a common goal, talking about the common things that we want to work on together,” Lemmon said.
These home groups would take advantage of Professional Development Days, lunchtime meetings, and after-school sessions to write various aspects of the report. After receiving written content from faculty and parents alike, Wilson, Blotter, and Eickmeier proceeded to edit drafts of the report to showcase the collective voice of the Pinewood community. According to Eickmeier, the process was long yet gratifying, since writing the report was a hugely collaborative effort from the whole Pinewood community.
From Mar. 22 through 25, Pinewood will be expecting a visit from the external WASC committee. This committee will spend three days immersed in Pinewood life to validate their own observations against what the report says.
“They will meet with the leadership, with the parent group, the student group. They will visit classes, they will be looking at evidence, and they will be looking at copies of our surveys. Because [on] the report, everything … has to be backed up with evidence,” Eickmeier said.
Members of the WASC committee might pull students aside to briefly talk about life at Pinewood. To address any intimidation about the visit on the students’ part, Eickmeier offered two words of wisdom: “Be yourself.”
The administration is looking forward to showcasing what the school has to offer, according to Wells.
“It’s energizing to think about these people coming to observe us because, through the WASC self-study process, we were affirmed in the fact that we have so much to be proud of here at Pinewood,” Wells said.
As the cycle concludes this year, the administration expects to receive the WASC accreditation in mid-June.
Haun praised the leadership and efforts of Wilson, Eickmeier, and Blotter for successfully executing Middle Campus’s first WASC cycle.
“Their organizational skills, attention to detail, flexibility, and ‘can-do’ attitudes, made it not only a productive experience but an enjoyable one as well. They are true examples of Pinewood faculty doing what they love with heart, expertise, and passion,” Haun said.
Having completed yet another busy and fulfilling journey through WASC, the Upper Campus administration said they are grateful for the time and thought that the entire faculty put into the process.
“Our teachers have a common commitment to students. And just to bring that common commitment to a larger form and have us talk together – that is a really powerful thing,” Lemmon said.