[Irv Howard (president of The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform); Theresa O'Hare and Jan Vickers (Laguna Beach Unified School District board members), Jenny Salberg (principal, Thurston Middle School), Sherine Smith (superintendent, Laguna Beach Unified School District), Bill Landsiedel (school board president, left to right, at the celebration honoring Thurston Middle School. (DON LEACH / February 11, 2013)

The numbers tell only part of the story of why parents, students, teachers and school board members gathered in the gym at Thurston Middle School on Friday morning to celebrate.

Yes, the school's Academic Performance Index score was 944 in 2012. Yes, 453 of the 770 students have a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Yes, there are 21 clubs on campus.

But Principal Jenny Salberg said there is much more to the campus, which holds sixth through eighth grades.

"We're not perfect, but it's great [at Thurston]," Salberg said following an assembly to honor the hillside school as a Schools to Watch recipient.

Thurston is one of 12 middle schools to receive the distinction in California this year, and one of just 48 in the state since the program began in 1999. Friday's celebration was also the first of its kind in the state to reward the newest recipients.

The award recognizes a school for students' academic achievement, social equity and organizational strategies. Innovative teaching methods and student-centered approaches are desired qualities for the award.

The assembly began with a video and progressed with appearances by Laguna Beach Unified School District Supt. Sherine Smith, school board President Bill Landsiedel and the school's band, led by conductor Jeremy Chung, playing a refrain from composer Aaron Copland.

The bleachers were packed with staff and students and a stage was set up on the floor, bordered with blue and gold balloons emblematic of the school's colors.

Irvin Howard, president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, explained to the crowd the meaning of the Schools to Watch award.

"All the students are so lucky," Howard said. "You've got people who have your best interests at heart. Things are happening at the school that benefit you."

Schools are reevaluated every three years to verify that they're eligible to keep the distinction, signified at each campus by a Schools to Watch banner.

Howard said no California school has had to turn in its banner.

"We're coming back in three years to visit classrooms, talk to teachers and talk to parents," he said.

Part of the responsibility of being a Schools to Watch recipient is to take on a mentorship role for other schools, some of which are in other countries.

"There are schools not as successful as Thurston," Howard said. "They need help. They need models. People will spend the day talking to teachers."

The emphasis is not on test scores, but on methods teachers use to teach their students, Howard added.

So what will Salberg emphasize when visitors come to Thurston?

"Every student matters," Salberg said. "We don't have a cookie-cutter approach to success. We ask, 'What do the [students] need to be successful?' We provide an array of support academically, socially, behaviorally. Every time I walk out of a meeting I think about how to evolve and be better. I want to say I'm always moving forward and striving to do a better job."

The chosen schools will be recognized at the California Middle Grades Alliance annual luncheon on Feb. 28, and the California League of Middle Schools Conference from March 1 through 3. Both events are in Sacramento.

Parents and teachers moved to the library after the assembly to munch on scones and sip cranberry juice and coffee.

Student Latifa Berri, 13, passed out drinks to the attendees. She has gained leadership skills as a member of the school's Peer Assistance Leaders [PALS] program. Serving at the homeless shelter is part of the program, she said.

Latifa praised the teachers and their desire to get to know students. She mentioned her math teacher.

"She's really sweet and answers every question," she said.

Thurston also has a program called S.M.A.R.T., which stands for Solve Problems, Make Great Decisions, Achieve, Respect, There and Ready.

"Teachers or staff give you cards if you participate in class, help someone in the classroom, or if you find money on the ground and return it to the office," Latifa said.

Every Friday there is a drawing to win prizes. On this Friday, though, all of Thurston celebrated a well-earned prize.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce