The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 10, 2013

St. Peter Schools get high marks from accreditation team

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — St. Peter Public Schools received high marks Wednesday during a unique district evaluation process by a visiting team that will be recommending the district for accreditation again.

The team was from AdvancED, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that accredits mostly individual schools throughout the U.S. and also internationally. District accreditation is a much more rigorous process, which is why few districts seek out the voluntary accreditation, said Richard Schoonover, part of the five-member group that conducted the evaluation of St. Peter’s district.

In fact, St. Peter was the first district in the state to go through the accreditation process in 2007, said Supt. Jeff Olson. Because the process has to be renewed every five years, the volunteers with AdvancED — who came from across the country with various education backgrounds — arrived Sunday in St. Peter to begin the evaluation.

The team observed in 34 classrooms districtwide and interviewed dozens of teachers, students, parents, school leaders, School Board members and caregivers.

St. Peter principals, teachers and administrators gathered for a special School Board meeting Wednesday, some anxiously waiting to hear how they’re doing and how they can improve.

Scores from 1 to 4 were awarded in a variety of areas with 2.2-2.4 being an average score for all categories. Schoonover said a 3 is considered very good, and scores close to 4 are rare.

St. Peter’s breakdown was: purpose and direction, 3; resources and support systems, 3; teaching and assessing for learning, 2.92; governance and leadership, 3.17; and using results for continuous improvement, 2.8.

“You’ve got a very good district here,” said Schoonover, a retired school administrator from Nebraska.

Schoonover described Wednesday’s report as a “fingernail summary” with the comprehensive written report expected in a few weeks. But the broad strokes, he said, are that the district has established a strong leadership development program; has a strong collaborative structure that supports student engagement and learning; monitors and responds to curriculum needs based on data analysis; and manages resources well.

The team also scored the district in categories under the new Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool rating system, which is being piloted as a new evaluation tool but doesn’t yet count toward re-accreditation.

The lowest score was for “Digital Learning Environment,” which measured student use of digital tools in the classroom.

“Keep in mind, we were in your classrooms for 20 minutes (at a time),” he said.

A higher score Schoonover emphasized was the 3.19 in the “Well-Managed Learning Environment” area.

“School is all about teaching and learning, and you want that to be a high rating,” Schoonover said.

Three areas that require a plan of action within a year included analyzing the equity of the learning environment for all students and families; reviewing the program for English language learners; and evaluating and implementing plans and procedures to address school safety.

Schoonover said none of these measures mean the district is underperforming in these areas. He said the first two measures have to do with the ever-increasing diversity in school districts, and it’s not enough to meet the needs of the current population of students; there have to be plans in place for the future.

Similarly, school safety is an important issue that should always be evaluated, he said.

“It’s just that, in this time in our history, we really need to continually address how we can improve school safety,” he said. “No matter how well you’re doing, you can always improve.”

Ytive Prafke, district special programs administrator, helped coordinate the process. She and Olson said they were pleased with the outcome.

Olson said he was glad to have the feedback on areas to work on so the district can begin plans for improvements.

“I think it was very positive,” Olson said. “We really got some good things to work on.”

The team will send a report to the AdvancED accreditation office for review, and a committee will likely grant the accreditation in a few months.

Olson said it’s been a tradition in the district since 1978 to go the extra mile to receive that external analysis. In the late 1970s, it was common for high schools to become accredited to help graduating students get into good universities, he said. But St. Peter opted to have all the schools in the district accredited at that time, which was rare.

“A number of districts moved away from having their schools accredited,” Olson said. “We’ve stayed with this, primarily because we like the self-assessment piece merged with the outside validation piece.”

Olson said there is no financial incentive to seek accreditation.

“The incentive is really ensuring you have a quality school system that’s meeting the standards of quality schools,” he said.

AdvancED is the world leader in accreditation with 30,000 public and private schools throughout the U.S., and all the Department of Defense schools in the world.