Norris School District, located roughly 12 miles south of Lincoln, Nebraska, serves over 2100 students in a rural setting. The Elementary (PK-4), Middle (5-8) and High (9-12) schools are co-located within a 270-acre campus. Student enrollment has been steadily rising as the community shifts from a more agricultural base to a more suburban base with a strong agricultural tradition. Compared to the statewide average, Norris School District has lower numbers of students who are eligible for free/reduced price lunches or are of limited English proficiency. Less than 10 percent of the students in the school system receive special education services. Over 90 percent of Norris High School graduates attend some form of post-secondary training or education.
While individual buildings within the school system have been accredited by AdvancED for many years, the system decided to transition to the AdvancED School System Accreditation model, with their first official system-wide accreditation review occurring in September of 2013. According to district superintendent Dr. John Skretta, Norris School District shifted from individual school accreditation to accrediting all its schools as one system in order to:
- focus on refining and streamlining processes and actions
- better connect educators across the system to ensure greater coherence in curriculum and instruction
- empower staff across the system to lead improvement efforts
Officials noted that while there were strong building principals and high levels of teacher leadership in individual schools, the system-wide accreditation process better advances a single refined, productive system.” One in which “the tremendously wonderful and innovative ideas developed in different buildings or by different teams is replicated across the system,” according to Dr. Skretta.
According to Dr. Skretta, Norris School District staff members were very involved in preparing for the External Review Team from AdvancED. “We used all of the tools for self-review from AdvancED that we could,” reported Dr. Skretta, “including stakeholder feedback surveys for staff, students and parents across the entire system.”
In addition to the stakeholder assessments, staff at Norris School District completed the AdvancED Self Assessment, rating their school system against the AdvancED Indicators using rubrics supplied by AdvancED. On their initial pass at the Self Assessment, staff at Norris School District were very confident that they were performing well in relation to the AdvancED Standards for Quality School Systems. Staff reported rating their school system at 3’s and 4’s on everything. After some conversations with others outside the system who had gone through the process before, “we realized that we were not as consistently highly functional (Level 3) or exemplary (Level 4) in many of the categories as we thought we were. We had to really reflect on our initial responses and ask ourselves, ‘are we truly integrated as a system in things like our professional development, our efforts for curriculum alignment, and the use of instructional strategies?’” shared Dr. Skretta.
By going through the self assessment process, before the formal External Review, Norris School District staff were already learning more about the difficulties of trying to develop and maintain a cohesive plan across the entire school system. Dr. Skretta continues:
“We’re always looking at data. We are using assessment results. We continually collect and analyze data, but we’re not sure that the application of data is happening instructionally, because we don’t have a common language. By the same token, not all staff members get the same training, because new staff members keep coming in, and we don’t have a formalized teacher induction program. We have a one-day orientation, which is one thing we’re going to change. All of that came out of the Self Assessment right up front…realistically, everything we needed to know was, in one fashion or another, embedded in the Self Assessment.”
After completing the Self Assessment, Norris School District was prepared for the External Review Team. This preparation, which included going through the self assessment process and gathering data from students, staff and parents, helped administrators clarify their goals for the school system and outline what they were doing to meet those goals. School system leaders shared that the process itself creates a means by which the school system is compelled to tell its story of school improvement and personal and professional growth designed to promote student achievement in a framework that is provided by AdvancED. “The accreditation process forces organizational coherence and the ability to articulate that story in alignment with, or through the lens of AdvancED. I think that’s really beneficial,” said Dr. Skretta.
At the same time, the commitment to self-assess and prepare for an External Review can create obstacles for those choosing the path of accreditation. That is, while it is beneficial, it can be burdensome, and some school systems that would otherwise be good candidates for accreditation don’t participate, because they believe they don’t have the internal capacity to deal with it. “You’ve got to coordinate a lot of things internally…the logistics of an accreditation review are considerable. It really is a huge effort on the part of everyone involved,” said Dr. Skretta.
Part of the effort in relation to planning comes from coordinating face to face interviews between staff, students, board members and parents with members of the External Review Team. However, school system leaders agree that the insights that the Team gleaned from the interview participants were beneficial. “People were very candid with the External Review Team and pointed out areas that were points of pride but also were willing to identify areas that were less effective and provide suggestions for how to improve,” shared one administrator.
Another large part of the External Review Process focuses on the use of the Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool™ (eleot™) to observe a majority (if possible) of the classrooms in the school system. The eleot provides a snapshot of actual practice within classrooms across the system with a focus on teacher practices that support student-centered learning. Dr. Skretta felt the use of the eleot was a very different and beneficial part of the process. “I believe this tool is more beneficial than if I tried to pull together a focus group of teacher leaders and ask them about the same criteria eleot observers are looking for. When you have an external team of very seasoned educators going into a large number of classrooms looking through the lens of the eleot criteria, you walk away with some interesting and valuable findings. The eleot classroom observations are a really key part of accreditation reviews now.”
Shortly after the External Review was completed, Norris School District received their written report breaking down the results of their review. For Dr. Skretta and staff, having the report acknowledge Powerful Practices was really important – “It’s a wonderful means of reaffirming for schools what they are doing right. It recognizes how hard you’re working and where you’re making a positive impact when you get those powerful practices as a feedback component of the External Review,” shared one administrator. “We felt like the people on the review team took the review seriously, made a credible investment of their time, and leveraged their own expertise to create a great report for us,” shared Dr. Skretta. “The report will provide great guidance to us in our school improvement efforts.”
Similarly, the report clearly laid out places for improvement as part of “Required Actions” for the school system. For Dr. Skretta and his staff, while it was sometimes hard to hear negative feedback, the congruence between what the External Review Team highlighted as areas of improvement and the evidence used by the review team to justify the need for improvement in those areas made it easier to accept. “The four Required Actions the team outlined,” said Dr. Skretta, “were not a surprise. Not one of them directed us to do something that our teacher leaders and key stakeholders for instruction, curriculum and school improvement would question.” Teachers found the results of the review credible and valuable and are pushing system leadership to provide more consistency, clarity and coherence around school improvement.
As a result of feedback from the final accreditation report, as well as the exit report provided at the end of the External Review, Norris School District initiated several responses to the Required Actions. First, the school board engaged with the Nebraska Association of Schools Boards to facilitate a formal strategic planning process, which had never been done in the school system. Secondly, the system created a plan to take a more focused look at professional development, which includes a formal study of current practices to streamline and systematize professional development opportunities throughout the school system. Third, the system is creating a uniform teacher induction program for new teachers and teachers that are new to the system to ensure that there is the same baseline level of knowledge about key areas of instruction.
In addition to the above actions, the school system began to update their processes and procedures to ensure better coherence across the system. Initiatives included developing a common language for instruction and formalizing baseline expectations around teacher professional learning plans as part of the teacher evaluation process. This was in response to feedback from the External Review report that noted that “different teachers at different levels are getting different degrees of valuable feedback, from almost no feedback to really specific feedback, from one-to-one where a teacher communicates only with an administrator to meetings where a teacher communicates with a whole faculty student group.” School system leaders agreed that a more uniform feedback loop was needed for teachers’ professional learning plans. As Dr. Skretta explained, “I don’t think we would have taken initiative in this area if we hadn’t had the system accreditation review.”
A tertiary outcome was that the system leadership team immersed themselves in the AdvancED framework for school improvement to really understand how the framework can guide school improvement efforts. One result has been that members of the leadership team are required to volunteer to serve on an AdvancED External Review Team to both support the accreditation process but also to see how other school systems approach similar issues that Norris School District has faced.
Given the recent nature of the review, there has not been any documented evidence of improvement in the targeted areas.
Overall, Dr, Skretta reports, the AdvancED External Review Process has been extremely positive and useful.
“I think what AdvancED does is to provide a common language and a comprehensive framework for continuous improvement efforts, and it imbues that process with the relevance that is only derived when you have expert feedback being externally provided to your school district. You have the opportunity to build collegial relationships with other accredited school systems, and the results can be pretty abundant in providing a lot of help to systems to better serve students.”
This case study was designed to provide insight into the AdvancED External Review Process for school systems.