Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes is one of two middle schools that received WASC accreditation in southern area for LAUSD. Students on nutrition break Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Photo By Chuck Bennett

Six LAUSD middle schools, including Dodson in Rancho Palos Verdes and Stephen M. White in Carson, made the grade in the first round of accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

All of the district's high schools are accredited, which helps college-bound students.

But last year, the district launched an initiative to also get its middle schools accredited. Along with Dodson and White, the first round included Frost in Granada Hills; and Irving, Nightingale and young Oak Kim Academy, all in Los Angeles.

WASC has been accrediting schools since 1962.

Both Dodson and White received accreditation for six years.

"This is a big deal, it's huge," said Adaina Brown, principal of White Middle School. "It affirms that we are putting the instruction of our students first."

The accreditation also helps as local public schools compete with private and charter campuses which also often have achieved accreditation status.

"We want to make sure that this is a good community school and bring people back to their community schools," Brown said. "You don't have to go outside your community, we have it right here."

LAUSD has been losing enrollment in recent years as charter and other schools draw students away. The loss of students also means a loss of revenue for LAUSD schools and the growing tension between the two education models surfaced as an issue in the recent six-day teachers' strike.

Both Dodson and White middle schools have large enrollments — about 1,700 apiece — and already had strong reputations.

"It validates our program and what we do here at Dodson," said new Dodson Principal Diana Zarro Martinez.

The lengthy accreditation process includes school visits and involves teachers, administrators, students, parents and the community.

"It's a good process for self-reflection for the schools," said WASC President Barry Groves. "It tells the community that (a school has) met these standards that were set by a national accreditation organization."

In the middle school setting, he said, it also helps establish a vertical alignment with the high schools in the area.

"Almost all charter schools are accredited because of the state requirements," he said.

The LAUSD pilot middle schools were selected in 2016. The following year, a "lengthy, sometimes tedious process" was launched as the schools were evaluated and reviewed for accreditation, Brown said.

The focus on middle school is especially important, Brown said.

"For a long time we've heard that middle school doesn't really count," she said. The goal was perceived as socially promoting students during that transition period between the more high-profile elementary and high school educational programs.

"In middle school, we had to redefine what our focus was," Brown, who attended Dodson as a student in the late 1980s, said of the accreditation process.

A major focus was on teacher collaboration and seeing classroom subject content as connected and overlapping with one another, Brown said. The school is the location of a science technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) magnet.

'Crash course'

Martinez took the reins of Dodson after the accreditation process already had begun under former Principal John Vladovic.

The process involves several school visits by WASC staff.

"It was a beautiful crash course in the school and all its intricacies," Martinez said. "The WASC team found we believed strongly in teacher preparation ... Students were performing at grade level and beyond."

Dodson is also the site of gifted and highly gifted magnet schools. It's latest magnet is for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Among innovations that resulted from the process at Dodson was the establishment of the student Dolphin Center where academic and other counselors are available during nutrition and lunch breaks to interact with students.

Brown said the outside assessments were helpful also at White.

"It was a good eye opener to have outsiders come look at our school and say you need to work on these things, or just giving reassurance that we're doing a good job," Brown said. "I think, too, the 'Ah-ha' moment for us was when they said we don't brag enough about what we're doing in the schools."

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