Accreditation: Worth the Hard Work
Mention the word "accreditation" to a head of school and you might encounter a wide variety of responses: "hard work," "intense," "totally worth it." Ask Eric Dowdle, principal and minister at Casas Christian K–8 School in Tuscon, Arizona, and you'll find a true advocate and champion of the value it brings.
Eric is well versed in the accreditation process. His school has been accredited since 2003, and he serves as the chairperson of his region's ACSI accreditation commission.
"ACSI's accreditation program has been the most significant method for our school improvement," he shares. "No other process helps schools take such a comprehensive look at their philosophy and effectiveness and improve in such dramatic ways."
But he also realizes there can be a lot of intimidation and misconceptions surrounding accreditation, particularly for schools that haven't gone through it. It's a lot of work, to be sure, but Eric has consistently experienced accreditation as a productive and rewarding process.
Essentially, accreditation is about your school's past, present, and future. It evaluates your school according to its philosophy, mission, and vision, and compares its performance to recognized standards of quality Christian education.
The process begins begins with a look at your history—examining your school in detail and compiling documents and evidences. Once you've done your homework, you arrive at the present with a clear sense of your compliance with standards of achievement. Following a successful on-site assessment by a visiting ACSI team, your school receives its accreditation and begins the process of implementing a continuous improvement plan to move forward.
Eric identified four primary areas in which his school has been strengthened as a result of accreditation:
Improved self-understanding and transparency
The accreditation process begins with an intensive selfstudy to assess weaknesses and strengths. This assessment helps the accreditation committee get to know the school and see how the school understands itself before the committee conducts its visit and appraisal.
"It's really healthy for schools to submit to the authority of another organization and accept outside guidance," says Eric. "It has challenged us to get to know ourselves better and see ourselves more clearly. This has to happen for a school to grow. You can't live in a myopic, isolated way.
"We all need help and encouragement," he continues. "We have to acknowledge our school isn't perfect, and we will always have opportunities for improvement. But accreditation provides a fantastic team to partner with you to help you recognize those opportunities and find strategies for growth."
Eric put together eight teams composed of staff, parents, and board members to review each of the eight standards upon which the ACSI accreditation committee bases its assessment. Each team used ACSI's indicators of performance to rate how well the school measured up to the standards. That initial stage of research laid the groundwork for the written selfstudy and evidence-gathering that served as proof for the ratings.
Eric says the choice to involve a diverse group in the pre-accreditation work was the best decision he made. Those who weren't involved in the process could trust it because they witnessed involvement from a number of key stakeholders who understood and cared about the school. And Eric considers the relational growth that occurred within these teams the greatest product of all the work: "God has used the accreditation process at our school to unify our community in a really beautiful way."
Better alignment with ideals and mission
The accreditation process helped Eric's school refine business practices, use data to inform instruction, choose better curriculum, develop effective marketing, and more clearly define the roles of board members. These changes and others have made Casas far more effective than before.
It also gave the school leaders valuable perspective on their Expected Student Outcomes (ESOs), objectives that articulate the school's core values to help students impact the world for Christ. These outcomes, written years ago, have now been revitalized to drive more focused, effective, and better-articulated strategies.
Catalyst to future growth
Accreditation requires a school to develop and implement an improvement plan. Eric and his staff have five school improvement objectives, similar to what you might find in a strategic plan. These goals reflect areas where he and his team identified existing weaknesses, which were later confirmed by the visiting accreditation team as opportunities for growth.
These new initiatives include annual review of the school's ESOs; a renewed focus on using ESOs to drive decisions for better program planning, personnel policies, curriculum, and purchases; conducting a feasibility study for a gym; and developing a comprehensive marketing plan for the school. Eric reports they've begun addressing these objectives and each has a timeline, budget, and team assigned to it for implementation over the next five years.
All this work represents the component of accreditation that Eric describes as "signing up with a commitment to continuous growth," provided within the context of healthy ongoing accountability. This ensures schools are following through, monitoring progress, and adjusting as needed.
Accreditation does many things. It requires a school to assess whether it's doing what it says it's doing—and how well it's doing those things. It confers a level of validation of a school's academic excellence. It demonstrates achievement of a significant level of comprehensive success and shows the surrounding community the school's high expectations for itself and compliance with educational standards.
But it's more than just a plaque on the wall.
Eric views accreditation as an essential element of the ministry of a Christian school. "There's a huge spiritual component," he says. "It's not just academic nuts and bolts and lists of objectives—it's really about fulfilling God's purposes for your school. He blesses the process as you faithfully move through it."
Contact your regional director to learn how your school can realize its full potential through the accreditation process—now more user-friendly than ever with ACSI's new web-based platform!