School Accreditation: What Happens?

By John Van Der Brink

Accreditation is a process of examination in which a school is evaluated by a team of experienced professionals. Its purpose is to highlight strengths and weaknesses and to provide a report on the viability of the educational institution. What is really involved in this procedure?

A team of educators from a variety of backgrounds arrives at your school on a predetermined date and begins a scouring process. Who are they and what are they looking for? They are members of an accreditation team and they are looking for evidence (or the lack of it) that proves that your school is doing what it claims to be doing. While that might sound rather vague and ambiguous, actually it represents a rather systematic approach to a thorough review of the school’s educational process.

It all starts with a mission statement, or statement of purpose. Every school should have a statement of purpose - a paragraph defining why it exists. This statement reflects the core values of the organization and should be composed after careful analysis and reflection. This statement is reviewed by the visiting committee to arrive at an impression of what the school is all about and whom it purposes to serve.

In order for a school to work towards its objectives and to serve its community, it must have the organizational structure, curriculum, facilities, and personnel to carry out its functions. The evaluation team reviews each of these areas of the school to determine whether it is functioning well and to suggest some possible areas of improvement.

For the organizational structure, an examination of who is the authority in the school, the chain of command, committee and board structure and interaction are some of the aspects that will be reviewed. It is important that each of these structural issues is documented, kept on record, and/or recorded in a school handbook so that the visiting examinees can see by whom and how a school runs.

The review of the curriculum is an important part of the review process. Each course at each grade level should have a well-defined course outline, including objectives, course content, evaluation procedures, and materials used. In addition, course outlines should be part of a subject program so that a reviewer can see the scope and sequence of study in a given academic area. There should be evidence that these outlines are followed, up to date, and reviewed regularly.

A review of the facilities is another part of the accreditation team’s responsibility. It may be surprising to know that this is not the most important part. One can have beautiful facilities and a poor school, or poor facilities and a good school. Obviously, it is good to have both. But the visiting committee is most interested in seeing if the facilities are adequate to support the educational program being taught. Rooms and equipment do not have to be of the latest style, but they have to be functional. There should be no wasting of time, or major distractions, or discomforts that interfere with the educational process.

Finally, the visiting committee will want to know about the school’s personnel. Who are the teachers, administrators, office staff, librarians, parent-teacher personnel, etc.? These are the people that are really able to make a difference in the school. What are their credentials? Are they certified? How many years of experience do they have? What are their schedules, and responsibilities? How do they function together as a team? There should be evidence that these people are capable and are working together towards a common goal of helping each child develop his own potential.

Now this is what an accreditation team does. The next question is how do they do this’? Each school is required to begin by doing a self-analysis. This consists of a team of people called a "steering committee" from the school itself that examines what its own organizational structure, curriculum, facilities, and personnel is. This is documented and assembled into a large binder for review by the visiting team. The team reviews these documents and compares it with what they see when they visit the school. At the completion of the review (usually 2-3 days of visits) the visiting team will compile a report that is shared with the school administration and faculty and with whomever of the school community that wishes to be present. This report will include both commendations and recommendations in each of the areas reviewed. A copy of this report is left with the school. Another copy of the report is sent by the team to the accreditation agency along with a recommendation to grant or withhold accreditation. Accreditation may be withheld if there are serious deficiencies or until an aspect is remediated. Otherwise, accreditation will be granted on a 1, 3, 5, or 10- year basis.

Following this report, school personnel is to select three or four recommendations from the report and issue a statement on how it intends to improve in that area. Goals and timelines are set, and a copy of this report is sent to the agency. A follow-up report is sent on a periodic basis to let the agency know the school’s progress towards these goals.

The main purpose of accreditation is to help the school improve what it is doing. That is central and should always be the main reason for going through this process. However, there are other benefits.

One benefit is recognition. Parents, businesses, and colleges generally look more favorably on accredited schools, and are more willing to be supportive and trusting. This can be an important issue if the school is trying to grow or is in a position where its reputation is at stake.

Another benefit is a financial one. Many large businesses donate large sums of money every year in outright donations, dollar-matching programs, or in scholarships. Often one of their criteria is that the school be certified.

But perhaps not the least benefit is self-awareness. It is good for the people involved in a school to know that they are doing the job they think they are doing, and/or are improving what they are doing. This builds morale, a team spirit, and helps them look forward to doing even better tomorrow. The accreditation process is lengthy, and is a lot of work, but is well worth the time and effort.