School district prepares for accreditation process

Published 7:06 am Friday, February 8, 2013

The Decatur County Schools are used to handing out grades to students, but in the coming weeks the system itself will be getting a “grade” of its own.

An external review team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)/AdvancED will be in Bainbridge from Sunday, Feb. 10, through Wednesday, Feb 13. This team will visit several of the schools in the Decatur County School system, to ensure that the school district is meeting the necessary standards for accreditation.

Dr. Fred Rayfield, superintendent of the Decatur County Schools, said that this is the first time the entire district will undergo the accreditation process. Previously, SACS had accredited individual schools one at a time.

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“If you have eight schools like we do, you can potentially have eight different five-year cycles between accreditations,” Rayfield said. “This way, we’ll be able to have the entire district earn accreditation at once, and then we’ll have the same five-year cycle between SACS visits from now on.”

The SACS external review team will consist of five professional educators from Wyoming, Florida and Georgia. Rayfield said that the school system began preparing for this process in September 2010, and the entire educational team has put in more than two years of continuous work and preparation.

Earning accreditation will give the Decatur County Schools several benefits, in addition to the pride of being well regarded. Students who graduate from local schools will be able to gain greater access to federal loans, scholarships, postsecondary education and military programs, which often require that students attend an accredited institution. It will also make it easier for parents to transfer their child’s earned credits to a different school system, if a family has to move or change districts.

The external review team will perform several actions to determine the district’s accreditation. Some of these include observing classroom settings, reviewing documents, looking at student performance data, and interviewing school stakeholders.

“One of the biggest things that this team will look for is for consistency and continuity throughout the district,” Rayfield said. “They’ll want to make sure that we’re all on the same page as far as our mission, school improvement, and instruction. They’ll also look at the involvement level and the dialogue level with parents and people in the community, to evaluate those relationships and see that we’re remaining engaged.”

After completing their visit, the external review team will provide an oral exit report. Rayfield said that report will be given to the administrative team and school board on Wednesday afternoon, during a called meeting of the Decatur County Board of Education. He said that the team will likely let the school district know Wednesday if they will be accredited, although technically that accreditation is not official until confirmed by state and national SACS commissions.

“Their recommendation is usually very strong, and supported by the state and national commissions,” he said. “We’ll know, by the time they leave Wednesday, whether we’re accredited.”

The external review team will also prepare a long document called a Quality Assurance Review (QAR) report. That QAR report will be submitted to the school district, with commendations and required actions for improvement. This report will likely be received sometime in March, Rayfield said.

“We are truly going into this from the perspective that we know we have things to improve in our school district,” Rayfield said. “Certainly, we would appreciate anything good and positive that they say about us, and we’ll be proud of any commendations we receive. But at the same time, we know there are things that we have to work on — we’ve identified them through our self-assessment during the last two years.

“We’re awfully curious to see if these educators look at it from an outside perspective and say, ‘Yes, we agree with what you’ve identified.’ At the same time, we expect they’ll find some other things for us to work on, as well. I want us to get as much feedback as we can, to make this the best school system we can.”

The Decatur County Schools will then be asked to use that QAR report to guide improvement efforts, and will be held accountable for addressing the required actions in the report. The district will be asked to submit an annual progress report that reflects its steps toward achieving those required actions.