Accreditation 2.0…from the other side of the equation

Do you have initiative? Do you like traveling to new places and talking to other teachers and administrators? Do you enjoy offering evaluative feedback? Can you keep things confidential? Do you like to write?

Before I sound too much like a midnight infomercial, let me back up. I’m talking about serving on an independent school accreditation team. In January I wrote about my experiences being on the school library side of an accreditation in Accreditation 2.0, and now I’m just getting my feet back on the ground after serving on an accreditation team. If you’re like me, you’re not really sure what it involves and specifically if the extra work is worth leaving your school library for a few days. I’m here to lift that curtain a bit.

But first, there are a few caveats. Consider the curtain lifted a few feet off the ground, not open for performance.

  1. I signed a confidentiality agreement. I have permission to post generally, but I can’t share any specifics about the school or what the team found. Also no photos.
  2. I’ve only done one visit, so I can provide a fresh perspective, not a universal guide.
  3. While standards are similar state-to-state, there are differences. See number 2; this is just one story.

Inspired by Katie Archamault’s fabulously read-worthy post on attending your first AISL conference  (Still reading this? Take a break if you’re going to AISL next month to check it out. ….It’s okay. I’ll wait…..) Here are 10 of my thoughts on deciding if you want to serve on an accreditation team and figuring out how to do it well.

1. There is homework first. You’ll receive your assigned review areas ahead of time, and you need to familiarize yourself with the standards that these areas must meet. You may also electronically receive the school’s self study and accompanying documents (possibly 500+ pages) a few weeks before. Don’t read everything carefully. Familiarize yourself with the overall organization and your specific review areas. You’ll also want to look at the school’s website and other online information to get a sense of how it portrays itself and how it’s seen in the community. You’ll probably also have a conference call or virtual meeting with your team where you run through the schedule of the evaluation and everyone’s roles.

2. Note the school’s mission. I can’t overstate the importance of this. You are not comparing this school to yours, nor are you interviewing for a job there. Your role is to see if the school is doing what it sets out to do. Does it stress academics? Progressive technology? Arts? As evaluators, you want to make sure that the school is meeting the goals that it has set for itself in keeping with the standards for your state or evaluation group. You shouldn’t talk about yourself or your school either. Focus on them.

3. Be professional. Be comfortable. There’s always a more standard template for men’s dress. Having met many of you at conferences, there’s a good chance that the majority of people reading this are women. My observations pointed towards dress that was a step above what’s worn in my school on a daily basis, but not necessarily a suit for women. (Then again, this is Florida. We’re more casual here.) Make sure that you can move easily in whatever you choose to wear because you’ll be walking back and forth indoors and outdoors throughout the evaluation. Comfortable shoes are a must. You’ll also want to think about layering. When you’re sequestered for writing and finally sitting in one place, the air conditioning can feel downright arctic.

4. Fun accoutrements. We were told to bring a laptop. That’s a given; I just wrote four single-spaced pages in a day and a half, and that’s after compiling seven handwritten notebook pages of observations. This is the time to glam it up with all your favorite office supplies. I’d personally recommend a computer mouse, and a highlighter and sticky notes for marking up a physical copy of the self study. (If only this post had come to me three days ago before I packed…)

5. Sleep…or coffee? These are long days! Note in the dress section I didn’t mention a bathing suit for the hotel pool. The days will start early, end late, and be full of interesting new experiences. There’s time to catch up on bad hotel TV at a different point. At least one day, you’ll need to be at school before people begin to arrive so you can watch the dropoff procedure. From then on, you’ll be attending classes, meeting with staff and administrators, and talking with students. After school you may attend a faculty meeting, athletic event or extracurricular activities. When you’re finally done at school, you’ll have dinner with your teammates. The point is, when the days start, you begin a marathon. Prepare well in whatever way suits you best, from an early bedtime to chocolate covered espresso beans. The choice is up to you.

6. Pace yourself. For the motivated overachiever, this is an all-you-can-eat buffet. You don’t want to fill up to quickly or only sample items from the dessert bar. You will have hours to visit classes, talk with administators, and see the students in various settings. Take notes as you go because you won’t be able to remember it all. Make sure you note the people you need to meet with to complete your specific review areas, and find them early in the day. You’ll probably want to jot down some notes of questions based on the self study, so that you remember to get all of the answers that you’ll need to write your narrative analysis.

7. Talk to students. I’m always impressed by the articulateness of student feedback and with student honesty about their experiences. If you work in a school, you enjoy working with students. Right? Meet some new ones. Listen to the ways that they are describing their school experience, their successes and their fears. This doesn’t have to be formal. With permission, join a small group in a class you’re observing or watch students as they enter the cafeteria for lunch.

8. Go to Yearbook class. Maybe others will find this to be a newbie mistake, but following on 7, find the Yearbook class if one exists. Yearbooks tell a lot about the values and priorities of the school. Their visual format opens the possibility for conversations to describe further what’s happening in pictures, and students who are interested in Yearbook are often friendly, enjoy their school experience, and want to preserve memories for all to share.

9. Talk to your teammates. Don’t think of it as networking; you’re hanging out with like-minded people. You’ll be working with motivated, accomplished educators. Use your downtime with them (before school in the mornings, dinners, etc) to ask about what’s working at their school. Or maybe you want to find out what a learning specialist “does” all day or how other schools are integrating iPads. These are your colleagues and the quick intense nature of a visit facilitates deep conversations.

10. Incorporate ideas into your own work. Sure, you’re there to evaluate a school’s strengths and weaknesses, but in every school, many things are working right. As librarians, we have a central role in our own school communities. Reflecting on my own library program as I sat in a different environment led to some inspirations about ways I can re-imagine my work and continue to improve.

That’s it.

Thus ends what is probably my longest post so far. For me, the experience was worthwhile, and while today has been stressful catching up after two days away, it was a positive experience. I feel professionally fulfilled, and while the hours were long and the writing schedule was demanding, I feel more strongly than ever that the accreditation process methods are valid and valuable.

I’d love to hear from others who have been on accreditation committees or who are entertaining the idea. What would you add or take away from this list? Does this mirror your experiences? Does this make you more or less open to the idea of applying to serve on a committee in the future?

Accreditation (2.0)

I don’t know how many of you grew up going to private schools, but I have strong memories of the process of accreditation back from when I was a student. Teachers were nervous. Visitors watched our classes. Rumors flew that the school could be shut down.

Now that I’m on the adult side of the equation, accreditation is much less mysterious. Sure the process is stressful, but it’s ultimately helpful for us to reflect on and clarify our goals. I think it’s good for students to know that experts are examining how we operate; many didn’t realize that we voluntarily work with accrediting organizations (for us, FCIS, SAIS, FKC, and SACS) to demonstrate that we are meeting our mission. For this most recent visit, which concluded six days ago, we began preparing in earnest January of 2014. Our headmaster likened the experience to when visitors come to your house for dinner. Even though they won’t leave the kitchen, when you’re setting up, you’re fluffing the pillows in the bedroom and lighting candles there. That analogy totally worked for me.

In the libraries, we caught up on all sorts of tasks. We revamped our Policies and Procedures Manual. We updated the organization of the library’s electronic subscriptions webpage. We completed a thorough inventory and subsequent weeding. We expanded the Lower School library into an adjacent former computer lab. We felt pretty much ready for anything.

Except this form, which was the only information specifically requested from the libraries. (Perhaps I should clarify that this was the five-year check up visit, not the full one. However, with all of the information other departments were asked to provide, this still seems sparse.)

 Number of librarians:_____                            Number of clerks: _____

 Amount spent on books and periodicals: _____

Average monthly circulation of books: _____

Number of volumes: _____     Number of subscriptions: _____

Number of volumes per student: _____         

Number of volumes added last year: _____

Seating Capacity in library: _____

 Please tell me that some of you are cringing a bit right now. This isn’t the 1950’s. We’re a 1-to-1 iPad school. I don’t think that my print circulation statistics or the number of seats in my library hold the key to the success of my library program. In fact, I don’t even think they shed light on that success. I dutifully filled out the form, and with it, I included the following information to the school’s accreditation chairs.

 This is the type of document that makes me realize how much libraries have changed in the past few decades! Collection numbers aren’t representative of the library as much as how we are teaching students to wade through resources available to them in whatever format they find most beneficial. For example, our EBSCO database subscription contains digital access to thousands of magazines through its databases, but that isn’t reflected in our total number of periodicals. My circulation numbers are lower because we often reserve shelves of books for in-class use so students aren’t hoarding books that have a few pages on a subject when all members of a class are researching similar topics. (What about when students take pictures of pages with their iPads instead of checking out books?) Even items like library seating are less helpful when you’re working with a preschool population! 🙂 I think that our number of volumes per student is going to be lower than some schools because we’re a younger school, but we do seem to be doing pretty well overall.

So I’ve been thinking about questions that are imperative for libraries today. I understand the need to keep everything easy to browse, but I think a narrative approach (one paragraph short answer) would provide more substantive answers. Fun questions like:

How do you balance digital and print resources in your collection?

Describe a time when you collaborated to teach library skills.

How do you respond when people say libraries aren’t necessary because of the Internet?

 These are just some ideas I’ve been throwing around half seriously. I’m sure anything that was used officially would need to be more quantitative, but we’re more than our measurements. 🙂 Think about it before your next accreditation year. What do you think needs to be part of a library accreditation in the years 2015 and beyond? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.