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Breaking from the Past

Washington Middle School moves forward to become award-winning school.

By Jay Seidel
La Habra Journal

It was an ordinary school day in early May when the notification came. Washington Middle School was named a Gold Ribbon School, one of the only junior high or middle schools in the area to receive such recognition and the first such recognition for Washington in decades.

The faculty, staff and administrators of Washington Middle School.
The faculty, staff and administrators of Washington Middle School.

Principal Mario Carlos smiled because he knew he was going to be able to tell his faculty and staff that their hard work and dedication the past couple years have been recognized. His smile got bigger as he thought about how he can tell his students that they can walk the halls with pride, knowing they are attending an award winning school.
That is a slight change for Washington. The school has been mired in the stigma of its turbulent past. It’s a past that consisted of under achievement, vandalism and gang violence.
“It went through some rough years,” said Sandi Baltes, who served as a teacher and assistant principal at Washington in the early 1980s.
Over the last 10 years, the school, which is located on the grounds of the original school in La Habra, has seen a substantial decrease in violence and gang activity, and has seen increases to student success.
Since his arrival eight years ago, Carlos has worked to change the culture at Washington.
“It is our moral imperative at Washington Middle School that we instill in our students the personal responsibility and love for learning, this way they can reach their full potential for a successful life,” Carlos explained.  “If our students value their education it will open up endless doors of opportunities.”
Working to create an environment of mutual respect and fostering the feeling of hope and success is something Carlos has done in collaboration with the entire staff since his arrival as a vice principal eight years ago.
Carlos and former vice principal George Lopez worked to implement the positive change in the middle school.  Lopez has since moved on to be principal of Ladera Palma.
In addition to being named a California Gold Ribbon School, overall test scores at Washington have improved over the last decade. Students have been recognized by individual and group achievements by regional, state and national organizations. Washington was also named a California Title 1 High Achieving School.
The faculty has been working on transformation of instruction due to all team members taking risks. Examples: Global read alouds, flipped instruction, blogging in the classroom, use of Google Docs, QR codes used in lessons, student created yearbooks, etc.
The students have achieved success with the Academic Pentahalon with Top 5 finishes for all grade level and over 100 individual medals earned.  The schools Robotics team also took 2nd place at the Cal Poly Competition.
With the La Habra City School District creation of academies at the middle schools, Washington has been integrating technology across all content areas through the use of iPads, Kindle Fires, Computers, smart phones, etc. The school has created 15 sections of STEM related electives and is in the running for Golden Bell Award for their STEM programs.
Dr. Susan Belenardo and the LHCSD administration have welcomed and supported the changes at Washington.
Washington has implemented a campuswide recycling program and offers a host of after school programs to help keep students involved.
There is an obvious feeling of hope and enthusiasm for learning on the campus.  Students are smiling and excited to be in the classrooms.  You can easily get the impression that the students have a strong support system from the faculty, who really want to see their students succeed.
“Mario had the courage to do what’s right for the kids,” Baltes added.  Baltes is the former president of the La Habra City School District Board.  “He believes in what he does and he gets others to believe in it too.”
Carlos is quick to explain that it’s the work of the outstanding teachers on campus that has helped change the culture.  He said that getting the faculty to come on board with his vision when he became principal was his largest priority.
“Dr. Carlos has been the driving force behind this change,” said Carin Verdugo, a teacher at Washington.  “He is a leader by example and supports the teachers 100 percent. Without his guidance and leadership, we would not be the school we are today.”
Carlos explained that teachers are initiating new concepts and programs as well as volunteering their time to help make more opportunities for the students.
However, despite changing the campus culture to one of support, respect, enthusiasm and initiative, Washington still battles the stigma of the school’s past.
The stigma is something Carlos and the staff continues to work to erase.  Carlos and his staff have worked to reach out to the parents and inform them of the changes at Washington.  Like he did with the faculty, Carlos has sought the support of the parents to support what is happening at the school.
“I have been really pleased with Washington,” said Andrea Carey, whose oldest daughter graduated from Washington and youngest daughter just started sixth grade.  “When my oldest attended, I was impressed with the emphasis on the kids being responsible. Academically, we had some really strong teachers that ended up being influential in her direction in high school.  They were encouraging and seemed willing to give as much as the kid was willing to put in.”
Carlos has the ability to connect with families. Recently earning his doctorate, Carlos is an example of the spirit of pursuing your goals that he promotes at Washington. He grew up in Boyle Heights and worked his way through schools in what can be considered rough neighborhoods.  He attributes having good teachers  who motivated him and  helped to make him want to become a teacher and pursue education.
His humble upbringing allows him to connect with the parents and help them understand the philosophy at Washington.
La Habra Police Officer David Morrison, who was the former school resource officer, noted the difference in philosophies at the campus. He explained that when a child needed to be disciplined, Carlos would “not so much lecture students about right and wrong as he would lead the student to take responsiblity for their actions and draw out of them the desired character quality.”
Morrison too noted that the changes are a result of the entire effort of the staff.
“The rest of the staff is also deeply committed to the education and welfare of the students,” Morrison said. “I was constantly being amazed at the devotion given to the WMS students by the staff.”
The changes happening at Washington are becoming noticeable outside of the community.  Students are winning state and national recognition for their work and presenting their projects to faculty at statewide conferences.
Administrators and faculty from surrounding school districts, like Fullerton and Whittier, are touring Washington Middle School to see just what it is they are doing. Many left the tours with ideas to apply at their campuses and thinking that Washington has truly changed.
The school has come a long way and continues to move away from its troubled past. Carlos knows that it will continue to be an ongoing project by the entire campus community to keep moving forward.  He feels that while they have had much success, the best is yet to come for Washington Middle School.

Started in 1995, the La Habra Journal is an independent community news source serving the cities of La Habra and La Habra Heights.