Friday, April 29, 2016

HA's Accreditation

Recently, an article appeared in the Dothan Eagle concerning AdvancED/SACS accreditation. Since then, I have received a profusion of emails, phone calls, and questions about what accreditation means and how Houston Academy approaches the process of accreditation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am very involved in the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) accreditation process. In the last two years, I have served as an accreditation visiting team chair for three quality, independent schools in the Southeast. Additionally, I have served as a member of visiting teams for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and SAIS accreditation teams for about 20 years, during which time I have had the privilege to help accredit approximately 20 schools. I’ve also served on a roundtable to discuss and shape our accreditation process for SAIS/AdvancEd/SACS. So, to say I am unbiased towards the process of accreditation, as it has evolved over the last 25 years, would be disingenuous.

That being said, let me start by answering the questions I’ve been asked, explaining what Houston Academy’s memberships are, and addressing why we hold these memberships. In a follow-up blog post, I’ll go into detail on what’s happening with our current accreditation process.

What does it mean to be accredited?
The SAIS website does a good job defining our meaning of accreditation:

  • Accreditation (noun): certification that a school meets all formal official requirements of academic excellence, curriculum, facilities, etc.
  • SAIS accreditation (noun): verification that a school understands its past, present, and future and is absolutely committed to its mission and its growth mindset.

So, basically, by going through a process of accreditation, we ensure that we have met a set of rigorous standards of educational quality, that we have been visited and reviewed by a team of highly qualified educators from around the Southeast, and we have a plan to improve and grow as a school. That improvement plan must, according to SAIS guidelines, be inextricably tied to our mission.

While attending a school that is not accredited does not prohibit a student from attending college,  SAIS/SACS/AdvancED accreditation allows college admissions officers know that the school from which the applicant has graduated has gone through a thorough quality review.

Of course, there are many other accreditation agencies around the country. Independent schools in Alabama also have the opportunity to obtain AdvancEd/SACS accreditation by being members of the Alabama Independent School Association (AISA) and going through their accreditation process. Houston Academy is also a member of AISA, but we chose to get our AdvancED/SACS accreditation through SAIS. Public schools must ALL be accredited through AdvancED/SACS.

Unabashedly, though, our accreditation (SAIS/SACS AdvancEd) is the “gold standard” for independent schools. First of all, to apply for SAIS/SACS AdvancED accreditation, a school must earn membership in SAIS, which in and of itself, is a rigorous process. Not only do we have to demonstrate quality as a school (proving that we are hiring highly qualified teachers and engaging in a strong educational program), but we also must be “independent.”

What does it means to be “independent”?
Most people do not understand the difference between being a “private” school and an “independent” school. There is an important distinction to be made between the term "private" and the term "independent." The term "private" implies some sort of exclusivity. As such, "private" schools are often affiliated with a particular, narrow religious order, and in that sense, are not entirely free to set their own educational path. Often, in order to work at a private school or attend a private school, you must adhere to a certain worldview or be a member of a particular religious denomination. "Independent," on the other hand, means that we are inclusive and welcoming of all people, regardless of religion, race, creed, national origin, or socio-economic status. As such, we are the only truly independent school in the Wiregrass. That is not to say that we do not embrace faith or religion – we do. However, in independent schools like HA, we embrace the diversity of our community and attempt to learn from our differences and build on our students’ and faculty’s individual strengths.

Likewise, Houston Academy is also the only National Association of Independent Schools [NAIS] member in the Wiregrass. NAIS members must also meet rigorous admissions criteria. Not surprisingly, then, NAIS schools offer their students significant advantages over other private and public institutions. To note but a few examples, NAIS students are three times more likely to attend four-year colleges; they are two to three times more likely to graduate from a four-year college or higher, regardless of socioeconomic status,;13% more likely to do volunteer work; and they are more likely to become involved as citizens. Both the "National Educational Longitudinal Study" and the "Freshman Survey Trends Report" showed that graduates of NAIS schools were more active in civic life as young adults. Whereas 57.4 percent of all the students who participated in the "National Educational Longitudinal Study" voted in a presidential election as young adults, 75.3 percent of participating students from NAIS schools did so. NAIS graduates were also nearly twice as likely to volunteer to work for a political campaign than the group of students as a whole. Data from the 2005 "Freshman Survey Trends Report," produced by the Higher Education Research Institute, revealed that 46 percent of NAIS graduates, but 36 percent of all freshmen survey, felt that "keeping up with political affairs" was essential.

Who else has SAIS accreditation or is a member of SAIS?
As of July 1, 2015, SAIS had 365 member schools, representing over 200,000 students. Our peer schools are schools like Altamont in Birmingham; Baylor and McCallie in Chattanooga; Randolph in Huntsville; Lovett, Westminster, and Pace Academy in Atlanta; St. James and Montgomery Academy in Montgomery; Bolles and Episcopal in Jacksonville; and UMS-Wright and St. Paul’s in Mobile. If you’re interested, you can search for other member schools here. You will find that most schools with high acceptance rates at selective colleges are on this list.

So what? Who cares what memberships and accreditations a school has?
To me, aside from accreditation, our membership in SAIS, NAIS, and AISA affords great benefits for our children, our teachers, and our school. What I value most about our memberships is the collaboration and collegiality it fosters. Our teachers have access to other teachers in rigorous independent schools around the country. We attend conferences, learn about current issues and research in education, and get information on “best practices.” We also engage in list serves, webinars, and leadership training. We have access to all kinds of resource material, including cutting-edge academic research. Moreover, we have the ability to benchmark our own school data against other schools around the country that are like us. Recently, for example, our Board of Trustees revised their bylaws and practices to be more progressive and consistent with what other quality independent schools are doing around the country. Additionally, our students get to compete in academic and artistic competitions and meet with student leaders from around the region.

Importantly, too, because we are an NAIS and SAIS member, we are able to recruit and attract qualified administrative and teaching candidates from all over the country and globe. In the last three years, for example, we have hired candidates who were teaching in or from Rio de Janeiro, Minnesota, and China. Dr. Janney, our new Head of Middle School, comes to us from the independent school world after stops in North Carolina and New Jersey. Personally, I would never have even interviewed for a job at a school that was not a member of NAIS, because I understand that NAIS member schools are commitment to academic excellence and innovation. I also know that an NAIS school is growth-minded and not insular in its attitudes. NAIS schools seek global awareness and to expose their students to a wide variety of ideas. For my own children, I want them to be challenged to look beyond Dothan and understand the competitive, global environment into which they will be graduating high school.  To put it simply, I just know that if I go to an SAIS accredited member of NAIS, it’s a “good school.”

The beautiful thing about SAIS Accreditation, in particular, is that it caters to the needs of independent schools and gives us the flexibility to chart our own educational path, divested from the mandates of the federal or state government. The SAIS/SACS/AdvancED process does not require us to abide by Common Core or engage in high-stakes testing. Similarly, schools are not compared to other schools. On the contrary, the only item against which schools are judged is alignment with their own mission. What we must show is that we are working to constantly improve as a school with the goal of helping students. In short, accreditation is about growth.

In May, our SAIS Visiting Team Chair will visit Dothan and assess our compliance with SAIS standards. Next November, the full, five-member SAIS visiting team will conduct a formal visit and review our school’s strategic plan and self-study. In my next blog post, I’ll explain where we are in this process and what our goals are for the next five years here at HA.