Accreditation at independent schools is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. What was once a necessary evil and an interruption to regular routines has now become a strategic tool that leading independent schools use to drive change in a chaotic landscape, evaluate educational outcomes, and explore boundary-stretching opportunities for innovation.
This unique feature will explore accreditation from three different perspectives: what’s happening in the broader landscape of accreditation of independent schools; how the most forward-looking schools are using accreditation as a foundation for growth; and what technology leaders can do to not only support the accreditation process, but also encourage strategic conversations around technology and how it supports schools’ missions.
Technology touches almost every aspect of operations and the delivery of education at independent schools, and yet some accreditation processes do not begin to adequately capture the ways in which technology can differentiate a school. Thus, technology leaders have an important role to play in the accreditation process. Actively participating in a school’s accreditation can offer a visible leadership opportunity for technology leaders, so it’s important to first understand why schools must undergo accreditation.
The Accreditation Landscape and Why It Matters: The Industry Perspective
Accreditation guidelines vary in the United States, with some states allowing accreditation of independent schools as optional, and others mandating it with specific state requirements, said Bonnie Ricci, executive director of the International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation, or ICAISA. Even in states in which accreditation is technically optional, she added, most independent schools consider accreditation a must-have in order to communicate to a competitive marketplace that the school is willing to meet the high expectations set by state or regional accreditors.
“Competition between independent schools is increasing,” Ricci said. “Some markets are saturated, meaning that there are more than enough seats to accommodate the number of students interested in independent school education. Competition for the limited number of students is fierce, and accreditation status is one way that schools can differentiate themselves.”
To remain relevant and meaningful, accreditation must uphold rigorous standards while evolving to meet the changing educational landscape. Some of the most impactful accreditation philosophies strike the right balance between accountability and growth, Ricci said, adapting to meet the needs of a particular school. “Some associations empower schools to determine which of several possible models will serve the school best,” she explained. “Some models focus solely on demonstrating alignment with association standards, while other models offer reflective and introspective questions designed to promote whole-school reflection, affirmation, and institutional self-assessment. These various models allow associations to offer schools the opportunity to adapt the process to meet their specific needs.”
When schools can travel the accreditation path that best suits their needs, they are able to focus the self-study process within the context of their existing strategic plan or a particular area of focus, including DEI work; financial sustainability; community well-being; or even a wholistic evaluation of technology, Ricci explained. “Some accreditors are embedding the ATLIS360 self-study guide for technology into their existing standards and protocols,” she said. “These specialized approaches help minimize duplication of efforts and encourage a forward orientation for the accreditation process.”
So, if states have different regulations and accreditation associations allow for various pathways to accreditation, how does ATLIS ensure consistency among independent schools across the country and around the world? Well, that’s where ICAISA comes in, Ricci explained.
ICAISA was founded in 2018 but has roots stretching back to the early 2000s with a National Association of Independent Schools board committee known as the Commission on Accreditation. ICAISA works directly with accreditation associations in the independent school community to operate under a shared definition of excellence and to uphold standards in accreditation, Ricci noted. In a nutshell, ICAISA offers an accreditation process for accreditation bodies. “You might be surprised to learn that there is an organization that accredits the accreditors,” she said.
Many K–12 accrediting associations are members of ICAISA, Ricci said, and members must adhere to a set of criteria for effective accreditation practices, including a self-study and review process that looks a lot like a school’s accreditation. “Schools that are accredited by an ICAISA member can be reassured that their accreditation protocol is strong and rigorous, and that their accredited status is testimony to the quality of all aspects of the school, including its academic program,” she said.
Necessary Evil or Golden Opportunity?
Where accreditation in years past may have been viewed as obligatory, Ricci said examples of how the accreditation process can transform a school community are becoming increasingly visible, particularly in today’s pandemic-affected environment.
Each accreditation report contains a set of commendations that offer opportunity for affirming existing practices and may highlight future directions, Ricci said. Further, the reports contain recommendations that help a school achieve its desired pathway with a prescription for outcomes that are relevant, achievable, and transformative, she added. “School leaders often use these recommendations to orient a school community around the need for change while simultaneously offering a pathway toward implementing new practices and protocols,” she said. “As a result, the accreditation process is now typically seen in a more positive light—a light that shines brightly toward a school’s desired future.”
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic forced independent schools to adopt a mindset of being comfortable with frequent change and uncertainty. The most significant accomplishments in terms of responses and adaptations lie firmly in the technology departments at schools, Ricci noted. “Never before had technology factored so significantly into a school’s daily purpose and immediate existence,” she said, adding that “the commitment from our technology leaders had deep impacts.”
The leadership role technology leaders played as the pandemic unfolded had a direct impact on emerging accreditation trends, including the ways in which technology leaders could take the reins to ensure a smooth accreditation process for a school in a still-unsettled environment, Ricci said. In short, she said technology leaders play a “huge role” in accreditation.
Ricci noted that one of the major leadership roles technology leaders often play in accreditation is providing project management and an organizational framework for the process, which may include a technological means for organizing self-study materials and allowing various committees to provide written responses to questions. With the goal of ensuring the self-study preparation phase to be as efficient as possible, technology leaders can work closely with the school’s self-study coordinator to ensure that the platform meets the requirements and expectations of the project, she said.
Technology leaders are also often responsible for completing several components of the school’s self-study, as technology is far reaching in both operations and in delivering education. The department may be asked to assess the school’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to technology and will look at possible directions for the future, Ricci said. She encourages technology leaders to “strive to approach the self-study phase in an inclusive manner, being sure to solicit input from a broad range of constituencies to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the department.”
Finally, she said technology leaders play an important role in the visiting team process, whether they are hosting a visiting team at their schools or are a member of a visiting team at another school. “By serving on a team, you immerse yourself in another school and get a feel for its culture and practices,” Ricci said. “This inevitably leads to team members bringing ideas back to their own school community.”
Making the Most of Accreditation: The Association Perspective
Before she became the accreditation director for the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, or ISACS, Dawn Jenkins Klus worked at independent schools. She admits that she understands the natural response evoked from busy professionals when accreditation self-study time comes around. “I have been told that eye-rolling and groans sometimes accompany the announcement that it’s time to begin the self-study process,” she said. “I might have even done that myself when I worked for an independent school and led the school’s reaccreditation process.”
Accreditation or reaccreditation can no doubt be an interruption to what is already a very busy schedule at independent schools, Klus said. Still, she learned over the years that leaning into the process can result in outcomes that are anything but ordinary. “I became hooked on accreditation because I realized that it offers much more than an opportunity to check boxes and demonstrate standards compliance,” she explained. “Its true power lies in the opportunity the accreditation process gives schools to become better versions of themselves.”
She added that schools that embrace the accreditation process often find themselves better equipped to “implement their missions more effectively and to plan strategically for the future, all in service of the students our schools educate.”
Klus helps shepherd more than 240 schools in ISACS’ footprint of 13 states down their accreditation path. The schools that look at accreditation as a strategic opportunity are those that slow down enough to step back, analyze how things are done, and look for ways to be more effective.
Regional and state accreditation associations require accountability as well as offer assistance in making the most of the process, Klus explained. “Accreditation practices may vary in methodology across states and regions, but they share the same overall purpose,” she said. “The association is responsible for ensuring that the schools it accredits meet all requirements for the safety and thriving of the schools and the people who inhabit them—hence, the compliance component.”
However, the association also requires the school to reflect on its mission and practice, make plans for improvement, and implement those plans over several years. Therefore, she said, the accreditation process establishes a multiyear cycle of activities that contribute to overall school improvement when implemented authentically. “When the accreditation process is successful, everyone in the school recognizes that they contributed in an essential way toward their own school’s improvement,” she said. “Their hard work and goal-setting are then validated through peer review by a committee of visitors from other independent schools, resulting in the association’s accreditation ‘stamp of approval’ that both recognizes the school’s achievements and pushes the school toward further improvement.”
As someone who directly observes accreditation, Klus has a unique vantage point in terms of how technology touches all aspects of independent schools. She is also a former technology director for an independent school and serves in a volunteer capacity as the current board chair of ATLIS. Over the decades, she has observed how “school technology” has evolved from the mimeograph to transparencies for the overhead projector to computers in the classroom. She notes that technology has transformed school operations by way of tracking admissions, building a constituent knowledge base, forecasting finances, and creating powerful tools for connection and communication. And yet many of these essential technology-supported and technology-driven functions of a school’s operations are not incorporated into some accreditation reviews.
“For the past 40 years, ‘school technology’ has remained largely unrecognized by accreditation associations as an identified area for examination,” she said. “One of the challenges is where it should be included in a school’s self-study process. Facilities? Academic program? Administration?”
Failure to nail it down with specific focus can be detrimental to long-term strategic planning in schools, Klus added. “If we are not explicit about examining the contributions and the costs of technology in our schools, we lose a valuable opportunity to consider how decisions made about those areas impact opportunities for school improvement,” she said.
ISACS is the first accreditation association to incorporate ATLIS360: A Technology Self-Study Guide for Schools into its self-study process, and Klus believes the technology-specific analysis is critical for schools to understand the total scope of its role in the institution. “It is crucial to examine technology and include it in the self-study and accreditation process so that technology practitioners contribute to and benefit from the school improvement process,” she said. “Principles of good practice would dictate that schools should examine technology infrastructure, information safety and communication, academic integration and learning innovation, and strategic planning in the self-study and accreditation process.”
Stepping into the Spotlight: The School Leader Perspective
Barry Kallmeyer, chief information officer at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, agrees with Klus that technology at an independent school warrants meaningful evaluation as part of the accreditation process. “It is difficult to argue the role that technology plays in our schools, especially with the recent work of our technology departments in supporting our schools during the pandemic,” he said. “I would encourage all technology leaders to reach out to their regional accreditation organizations to ask about including the ATLIS360 self-study guide as a required part of the accreditation.”
In Hathaway Brown’s most recent accreditation process, which included virtual accreditation visiting teams in the spring of 2021, Kallmeyer played an active role in leading the technology department through its evaluation process, using ATLIS360 as a guide for gathering and evaluating data points. The team designed a Google site to organize the documents recommended in the ATLIS360 self-study guide and responses to its guiding questions.
Kallmeyer also helped develop the school’s curriculum map as part of the accreditation process, guided by a curriculum mapping tool designed by Richard Anderson. “I had learned about the tool at an earlier ATLIS conference and petitioned the school to use this for our curriculum map,” he noted, adding that the recommended solution replaced a 10-year-old map housed on outdated technology.
Finally, Kallmeyer supported the virtual accreditation visit, designing a schedule and organizing the technology for one of the first virtual visits during the pandemic. “I have always played a key role in the accreditation process,” he explained. “However, with our reliance on technology continually increasing, my role continues to grow.”
Kallmeyer said technology teams can provide a unique vantage point to accreditation self-study processes given their perspective of whole-school operations. “The IT department is connected to every aspect of our school,” he noted. “We see the strengths and challenges across each department and can typically provide guidance in developing processes and streamlining activities.”
The point of accreditation processes is to identify areas of improvement, Kallmeyer pointed out, and technology can often provide support in finding solutions to many of the issues that accreditation uncovers. “As a technology leader, I am always looking for ways to work more efficiently and to develop processes that can be replicated,” he said. “This kind of perspective can allow a school to focus on more important issues.”
Because most state and regional accreditation guides do not currently offer structure regarding evaluating a school’s technology programs, many technology departments may fly under the proverbial radar, and it could be tempting as technology leaders to leave it that way. However, Kallmeyer argues that this attitude is short-sighted and does not reflect the current role technology plays in independent schools. “I do not think it is enough to just include technology as part of facilities or other departments,” he said.
What are some ways that your technology team has been able to support your school's accreditation process? How have you used the ATLIS360 Self-Study Guide or how do you plan to use the newly-released ATLIS360 Companion Manual to support the process? Let us know in the comments below.