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Accreditation Team Visits Columbus Schools

BY BRIAN JONES

An on-site visit to the Columbus Municipal School District by an accreditation team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools ended last week with an outbriefing for district personnel.  The team mostly spoke well of the district, but also highlighted some areas needed improvement.
The district must go through the accreditation process every few years.  This visit looked at the district as a whole rather than specific schools.
Dr. Steve Epperson, leader of the SACS team, characterized the visit as “a great three or four days.”
The team interviewed 18 administrators, 56 teachers, 39 students and 41 parents, among others, Epperson said.
“We look at several areas,” he said.  “We have to rate each of them on a scale of one to four based on what we see during our visit.  It is extraordinarily difficult to get a four.”
The district’s scores in each area were:
•    Purpose and direction: 3.00
•    Governance and leadership: 3.17.
•    Resources and support system: 2.75.
•    Using resources for continuous improvement: 2.60.
•    Teaching and learning: 2.75.

Epperson identified areas where the team thought the district was doing “exceptionally well.”
“These are things we would want to take back to our own school district,” he said.  “Two things stood out.  First, the district and building-level administrators have demonstrated a strong commitment to the philosophy that all children can learn and have modeled this philosophy with their visibility in classrooms and monitoring of the instructional process.  The fact that the office people here are assigned a school and work in that school and sit on school improvement teams…that is not common practice, it doesn’t happen very often.  From an outsider looking in, this is really a model type program.
“The other one is that professional development opportunities have been significantly enhanced using the professional learning community model,” he said.  “This is not the only district who uses professional learning communities.  What impressed us is that this is a relatively new innovation.  We did not see or hear teachers balk at this in this district.  They embraced it because it gave them the opportunity to talk about issues and testing data.”
The team also identified two areas that needed to be improved.
“These are required actions,” he said.  “You have to show proof within one to two years that you have addressed these issues.  The first is identifying instructional strategies to address the diverse learning needs of all students and systematically evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies by providing evidence of improved student achievement.  There are a lot of things going on in the classroom, a lot of innovations and changes are in place.  Those changes for the most part are only in their first year.  There hasn’t been time to see if they have a positive impact on student achievement.  You have to evaluate those things, because we as educators are terrible at implementing a program and then leaving it there for eternity.  We need to be able to look at programs and try something else if they’re not effective.
“Secondly you must design and implement a systematic process to evaluate the effectiveness of instructional programs and clearly identify the key data points to measure overall effectiveness,” he said.  “Again, you must use data to look at programs to assess them and see how they’re working.  Everyone can get better.  If you don’t look at things, the same old, same old carries on.  You need to identify variables that you can track to evaluate how you’re doing as a board.”
Board member Aubra Turner asked Epperson how the interviewees were chosen.
“It was not random,” he said.  “We interview specific administrators, but the students and parents and community members were provided by the local school district.”
“Who made those recommendations?” Turner asked.
“At the student level I assume it was the principals,” he said.  “At the district level I assume it came from (the superintendent’s office).  I’m not sure.  I will say the stakeholders were very candid.  We were not speaking to cheerleaders.”

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