Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Arkadelphia Public Schools recommended for AdvancED accreditation

Arkadelphia Public Schools is proud to announce that as of Wednesday’s completion of the 2013 AdvancED review, the district is being recommended for accreditation to the AdvancED national governing board.

In 1923, Arkadelphia High School became the first high school west of the Mississippi to be accredited by the North Central Accreditation Commission. By the 1986, every campus in the Arkadelphia Public Schools reached, and has maintained, this prestigious accreditation. Since that time, the separate, regional accrediting bodies joined together to form AdvancED.

The AdvancED accreditation process is undergone voluntarily by the district every five years, and is done in addition to the mandatory state accreditation. Also, APS is the first district to face the accreditation challenge in the most recent cycle of school-system reviews.

“This is a much different process than what the state does in their visit,” APS Superintendent Donnie Whitten said. “The state visit is primarily about meeting specific requirements, such as student to teacher ratios and staff qualifications. The AdvancED team evaluates the instructional quality and learning environments present in our classrooms and then provides insightful suggestions for improvements, and reinforces our current strengths.”

During the on-site external review, team members visited five of APS’s campuses and interviewed 5 board members, 13 administrators, 62 teachers, 6 support staff, 33 parents, and 32 students for a total of 151 stakeholders. Using their five primary standards of 1) Purpose and direction, 2) Governance and Leadership, 3) Resources and support systems, 4) Using results for continuous improvement, and 5) Teaching and assessing for learning, the team compiled an exit review which includes the team’s conclusions. Lead evaluator and retired superintendent Dr. William Rivenbark called the standards “the heart of the evaluation process” while he was delivering the final report to the district in a special session school board meeting on Wednesday. According to the AdvancED team’s findings, and outlined in their official exit review, APS’s six most “powerful practices” are:

1. The leadership and staff at all levels of the system foster a culture consistent with the system’s purpose and direction.

2. The system implements a mentoring and induction program that sets high expectations and requires the participation of all new teachers, both new to the profession and new to the system.

3. All staff members participate in a rigorous, continuous program of professional development that is aligned with the system’s purpose and direction and includes opportunities for development based on individual needs to improve instruction, student learning, and conditions that support learning.

4. The Arkadelphia Public Schools has a comprehensive, systematic process to recruit, employ, and retain qualified professional and support staff.

5. The system continuously strives to provide services that support post-secondary opportunities for its students through a community supported scholarship program known as The Arkadelphia Promise.

6. The use of “data walls” in the Arkadelphia schools is outstanding in the way that it visually presents achievement data to the staff for ongoing analysis.

In addition, four positive “themes” found to exist within the district are:

1. Schools are focused on using data to improve test scores.

2. The system values the importance of professional development.

3. The leadership of the Arkadelphia Public Schools is willing and eager to be innovative.

4. The Arkadelphia community is very proud of the fact that its leading industry is education.

“The results of our AdvancEd external review reinforces the district's effort to produce college and career ready graduates,” Whitten said. “The results our schools receive each year in terms of student achievement shows our district is moving in the right direction. I would personally like to thank our board, administrative team, staff, students and parents for their continued work and support on behalf of our schools. It is an honor to continue our strong partnership with AdvancEd.”

Also outlined in the exit review are specific growth areas where AdvancED feels APS can improve.

“Our recommendations are reflected in the final report as the ‘required actions’,” Rivenbark said. “In the spirit of continuous improvement, all institutions we review receive a set of required actions, because not matter how good you are, you can always improve.” APS must address these areas within a two-year timeframe in order to maintain their accreditation status:

1. Engage in a systematic, inclusive, and comprehensive process to review, revise, and communicate a system-wide purpose for student success.

2. Design and implement a plan for leadership to effectively engage internal and external stakeholders in support of the system’s purpose and direction.

3. Design and implement structures in all schools that ensure each student is well known by at least one adult advocate in the student’s school who supports that student’s educational experience.

4. Address the technology needs of each school building paying special attention to the infrastructure, electrical capacity, and technical support.

5. Recognize that the physical, social, and emotional needs of the student population should be addressed with some of the urgency seen related to test performance and academic achievement.

One of the external review team’s tools used in the on-site evaluation is the Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool, or ELEOT, which is used to “identify observable evidence of classroom environments that are conducive to learning. The focus is on the learner, not the teacher, to ensure learners are engaging, acting, reacting, and benefiting from various environments that should be evident in all effective learning settings.”

The specific environments the team graded are APS’s equitable learning environment, high expectations environment, supportive learning environment, active learning environment, progress monitoring and feedback environment, well-managed learning environment, and digital learning environment.

Preparation for the evaluators’ visit is just as important as the evaluation itself. The team’s visit is an intense 4-day comprehensive investigation, but for months leading up to the AdvancED team’s arrival, the district underwent a period of self-evaluation, during which time information was gathered which helped district staff better understand their collective areas of strength and weakness.

“By the time the exit review is presented by the AdvancED team, we could tell you what their required actions of us will be,” Dr. Virginia Anderson, Director of Federal Programs and leader of the district’s preparation process for the review, said. “The most valuable aspect of what they provide is a means of measuring how we compare to other top districts.”

Anderson also emphasized the importance of the self-evaluation, saying that during that time, teachers and administrators are able to collect, and reflect upon, insightful data pertaining to very specific components of their classrooms and schools.

“It’s similar to a student preparing for a test,” Anderson said. “When the process is done correctly, you learn the most from the time spent studying and preparing. Actually taking the test and seeing the results affirms the learning and preparation.”

Beginning in the spring of 2012, every teacher, student, and parent of a student in the APS district was invited to participate in a survey about many aspects of the district’s schools. The responses were collected and used alongside the information derived from other self-evaluation tools. Much of this data was later used as evidence by the district to support stated strengths and weaknesses.

Most importantly, the internationally recognized accreditation confirms that a graduate of the district experienced challenging curriculum in an engaging environment and that the district is adhering to similarly high standards that other school systems follow, and that colleges and universities expect from the schools delivering their incoming freshmen. Furthermore, the accreditation allows for consistent transfer of credits between different school systems and shows employers of the district’s graduates that those students’ K-12 education was based on a solid foundation. 

Dr. William Rivenbark, lead evaluator for the AdvancED team which recently reviewed the Arkadelphia Public Schools, presents the team's official exit report during a special session of the Board of Education.
By Sean Ruggles, APS Communications Director 

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