It’s a typical school day morning. We send our children out the door to pre-, public, private or charter school, secure in the feeling that our school is as good, or better, than any other. But not all schools are created equal. Even though all public and private elementary schools must comply with the state education requirements, they are not required to be accredited.
Accreditation is purely voluntary and possible for preschool through college. Independent agencies and associations prepare standards for evaluating the quality level of educational institutions, which are subsequently applied when evaluating individual institutions seeking accreditation.
Public and private high schools must be accredited to insure that units earned can be transferred to other high schools or accepted at the college level. Public elementary schools do not usually go through the accreditation process.
“Getting accredited is an exercise in improving your school,” says Rohn Ritzema, a regional director for the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). ACSI offers accreditation to its member schools through a comprehensive evaluation, as do other agencies such as the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs (NAECP). It’s not unusual to find a school jointly accredited by more than one agency.
An accrediting agency charges a fee to issue an in-depth accreditation manual and guidelines to an interested school. A large part of the accreditation process is the self-study component, followed by an onsite visit from the evaluation team.
“After the school completes an in-depth self-study program addressing all facets of the school, including academics, professional growth and in our case, a spiritual component, ACSI sends a selected team of at least five members to the school site,” says Ritzema. The team observes every teacher, speaks with every staff member and meets with the parents. “The team practically lives on campus to conduct the intensive evaluation,” he adds. The accreditation, once granted, can be for a three- or a six-year term.
One accrediting group, the National Association of Education for Young Children (NAEYC) requires preschools to be in operation for at least one year. NAEYC sends a prospective school a “box of criteria” that evaluates many areas such as staff professionalism; safety; child relations, interaction and stimulation; and school equipment.
An objective of accreditation is to evaluate a school’s strengths and weaknesses and, where appropriate, make recommendations for improvement. A school willing to undergo this self-improvement process sets itself apart. Schools that are accredited prominently display the logo of their accrediting agency on their brochures. Don’t forget to ask about it when shopping for an outstanding school. Accreditation is more than just a plaque on the wall.
You may have noticed some schools in Middle Tennessee stating that they are “accredited by SACS.” What is SACS and what does their accreditation mean?
SACS, or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, aims to improve education in the southern United States by recognizing and encouraging quality education institutions through accreditation. The SACS School Improvement Process is a three-phase integrated continuous school improvement process. The three phases are planning, peer review and implementation. An accredited school must participate in and commit to a school improvement program using the SACS School Improvement Process.
Whether public or private, approval as a candidate must be made first, which allows the school three years to complete accreditation requirements. The school hosts a peer review team that will determine its compliance with the standards for accreditation, review and validate the school’s self-study and make a recommendation for accreditation to the State Committee. The peer review visit checks that the school demonstrates compliance with all the standards for accreditation.
For candicacy approval, the school provides:
- A profile describing the current performance levels of student achievement, demographic data regarding the school and community, a description of school characteristics and results from opinion inventories involving people in the school and community.
- A mission statement and list of beliefs reflecting the purpose and intent of the institution to support student learning.
- A list of desired results for student learning in areas of critical need as described in the school profile.
- An in-depth analysis of the current instructional and organizational effectiveness of the school, based on current research.
- An action or school improvement plan that focuses on student performance.
- An executive summary outlining the major accomplishments in the school during the last five years and significant challenges that are to be addressed in the next five.
After the peer review visit, the school must implement their school improvement plan and address the following:
- Annually update the school profile describing student performance.
- File an annual report to the State Committee on progress made in implementing the school improvement plan.
- File an annual accreditation report to determine compliance with the standards for accreditation.
- Collect and analyze data regarding student performance, as wll as instructional and organizational effectiveness.
Once a school is accredited, it must host a peer review team every five years and demonstrate compliance with the standards for accreditation on an annual basis.
From the official website of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, www.sacs.org. To learn more about getting a school accredited by SACS or to determine if your child’s school is accredited, visit the site or call 404-679-4500.
Claire Yezbak Fadden is a freelance writer and mother of three.