Diocesan school system achieves accreditation

AdvancED team evaluates all 10 schools, says they meet or exceed high standards

By Bill Brewer

The Diocese of Knoxville’s school system has been given two thumbs up for its accreditation efforts following a two-year evaluation process involving all 10 diocesan schools.

A team of eight education evaluators with AdvancED, the organization that accredits schools around the United States and the world, presented its final recommendation for accreditation to diocesan leaders assembled at the Chancery in Knoxville on Feb. 23.

Accreditation means the 10 diocesan schools are a system of excellence, meeting AdvancED’s high standards of achievement.

Nine of the diocese’s 10 schools already are accredited by AdvancED, and the school system now has achieved accreditation, meaning all 10 schools as a system have met or exceeded AdvancED standards.

“The results indicate that the institution, the system, is performing within and well above acceptable levels compared to the expected criteria as well as other institutions that have gone through this process,” said Leisa Schulz, superintendent of Louisville Archdiocese schools, who was the lead evaluator in the accreditation process. “So it is with great pride and great celebration that we, as your external review team, are very excited to recommend to the AdvancED Accreditation Commission that the Diocese of Knoxville earn the distinction of accreditation by AdvancED.”

Diocese of Knoxville schools were specifically singled out for their outstanding academics and strong Catholic identity.

Bishop Richard F. Stika complimented diocesan schools superintendent Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, and her staff and principals of the Diocese of Knoxville schools and their faculty for achieving the education milestone.

“I want to thank you for all your efforts because it has made my day to see these results,”

Bishop Stika said. “This is a wonderful achievement. You may think we’re a small system, 10 schools, but every child in the system is important to their parents, to the community, and especially to God. Today, we recognize the mind and intellectual capacity of these children to be reflections of Jesus.”

The external review team members, professional educators from around the country, visited all 10 schools the week of Feb. 20, observing classrooms and interviewing stakeholders as part of the final phase of the diocese’s accreditation process.

In addition to Ms. Schulz, those on the review team were Cary Jane Williamson, assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Savannah, Ga.; Stephan Sargent, professor of reading methods at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma; Raymond Honeycutt, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Richmond, Va.; Barbara O’Block, retired superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Gary, Ind.; Debbie Perkins, retired principal from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis; Michelle Priar, assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Evansville, Ind.; and Marie Williams, principal of Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, Ind.

Ms. Schulz explained that many of the schools in the Diocese of Knoxville have had long relationships with AdvancED, which works with more than 32,000 academic institutions serving 20 million students worldwide.

“When we talk about accreditation, it is really good to know that it is an international protocol that we in Catholic education choose to voluntarily be a part of, so we have that choice and option.

You are really committing yourselves and your institutions and systems to ongoing improvement,”

Ms. Schulz said. “The process is conceived in order to build capacity of the system and its schools, so that both the system and the schools are collaborating, working together, and all pulling in the same direction to take advantage of all the resources and energy that is there, and to work together on challenges and issues, both at the system and school level.”

After the diocesan school system compiled reports for AdvancED over the two-year period, including a self-study that analyzed areas where the system is strong and areas where it needs to improve, the external review process began. External review team members closely examined the 10 schools. Specifically, the team looked at three key areas:

  • Teaching and learning impact, which is based on student performance results, instructional quality, learner and family engagement, support services, efficacy and quality of curriculum, and college and career readiness data;
  • Leadership capacity, which is the system’s institutional purpose and direction, mission, vision, governance, and leadership effectiveness;
  • Resource utilization, which is the allocation and use of resources, the equity of the distribution of those resources, the level and the sustainability of those resources, and the long-range capital and resource planning effectiveness.

She said these benchmarks rated by the external review team are an effective measure of the Diocese of Knoxville school system compared with accredited systems around the country.

AdvancED found “powerful practices” in the diocesan system’s teaching and learning impact and leadership capacity. It found room for improvement in resource utilization.

“When you look at the overall score for the Diocese of Knoxville, at 291.16, in comparison to the AdvancED network average of 278.03, you far exceed that average. And when you look at the component parts, teaching and learning impact, at 293.45, you again exceed the AdvancED network average. Leadership capacity, at 329.17, far surpasses the network average,” Ms. Schulz said.

Sacred Heart Cathedral School teacher Kelly Rexrode instructs her fourth-grade class as AdvancED accreditation evaluator Barbara O’Block (far left) observes as part of the accreditation process for the Diocese of Knoxville school system.

“Resource utilization, at 228.13, is slightly below the AdvancED network average. However, what we found and confirmed for you through your self-study is that you have a great deal of capacity and good leadership, both at the system and individual school levels. You have exemplary results and programs and effective Catholic schools in terms of teaching and learning. We all have finite resources, and the resources you do have you are using the heck out of them because you are achieving because of your leadership and your commitment to formation and education.”

She said the results should not come as a surprise to the East Tennessee Catholic community or those in Catholic education.

“The results indicate the institution, the system, is performing within and well above acceptable levels compared to the expected criteria as well as other institutions that have gone through this process,” Ms. Schulz said. “You know that you need to go out there and continue the fabulous work that you’ve done in increasing your financial assistance funds over these last several years. Look at attracting more students and more resources to continue to ensure a wonderful Catholic education into the future.”

Over the next two years, the school system will work on improving in the areas AdvancED recommended, including adopting and maintaining standards for feasible three- to five-year financial plans for the schools that include current and projected budgets that are the result of collaborative processes emphasizing faithful stewardship.

The evaluation team observed 88 classrooms across the diocese over a two-day period in February.

All 10 diocesan schools were visited by the team. Their assessment concluded that the diocesan school system has a well-managed and supportive learning environment.

Also, the system was described as having an active learning environment with high expectations, equitable learning, and progress monitoring and feedback.

“In every one of those areas, your averages exceed the AdvancED network averages. That is quite an accomplishment,” Ms. Schulz said.

While pointing out that the diocesan school system’s average in the digital learning environment is slightly lower than the AdvancED network average, she said diocesan classrooms reflect a great deal of technology, with lots of equipment.

“Teachers are using that technology; many of your schools are just now bringing in one-to-one initiatives (one computer device for each student). What this is looking for, however, is student use of technology. I think you are right in sequence with what we know and what we experience in our own dioceses. Now in education, we are really focusing on how we get technology in the hands of students and have them be actively engaged. I know you have professional learning and other experiences scheduled to help you be able to do that. Keep in mind, these are very, very exceptional results.”

The team identified an improvement priority, calling on the system to enact a communications and marketing plan for Catholic schools developed in collaboration with Catholic school leaders and community stakeholders to increase enrollment in Catholic schools. This plan should be developed by building awareness of the evangelizing mission and academic excellence of Catholic schools in East Tennessee. Ms. Schulz said

Diocese of Knoxville school leaders had identified elements of this in their self-study.

Bishop Stika said he can empathize with everyone who took part in the accreditation process. He noted that he served on an evaluation team that assessed Archdiocese of St. Louis schools when he was a priest there, and he recalls the hard work that went into the process.

“I just want to thank all of you for your efforts. Seeing the results of this two-year process means so much to me and all of us in the Diocese of Knoxville. Time and time and time again our diocese is being recognized in a variety of ways. We are a young and small diocese, but we are working together, and you can see that so much has been accomplished,” Bishop Stika said.

“Again, this (accreditation) is a wonderful achievement. … We have a small schools office, with Sister Mary Marta, Sedonna (Prater), and Marie (Garvey), but a huge impact. And we must recognize all those who are involved in education in our diocese, the students, parents, the principals and presidents, and the schools’ faculties. I am just thrilled,” the bishop added.

Sister Mary Marta was gratified by the accreditation results, praising the schools and their staffs for making the grade.

“I’m very pleased. I was very proud to hear our school leaders speak for our schools and represent our school system in such a professional way. This speaks to the quality of our education and our Catholic identity. We were cited for our great academics and our Catholic identity,” Sister Mary Marta said.

She noted that plans already are underway to build on the accreditation results.

“They said we’ve done a great job, pointing out that we really are doing more with less. One of the goals we have to work on is a three- to five-year budget for our schools, strategic plans, and more marketing,” she said. “We’re already looking at getting our annual report out to everyone in the diocese.

And we’re starting to plan for teams within our own diocese to visit each other’s schools to point out strengths and weaknesses.”

Mrs. Prater, director of curriculum and instruction for Diocese of Knoxville schools, said the accreditation review did not provide any surprises.

“We did such a thorough self-analysis that the exit report really just validated and affirmed our own findings,” Mrs. Prater said.

“You want to do such a thorough self-analysis that you want to find areas for growth and to know what you’re doing well so you can keep doing them well.”

Mrs. Prater pointed out that by meeting and exceeding AdvancED’s “very stringent” standards, diocesan schools exhibit excellence in all facets of education, something that is critical to students (from high schoolers preparing for college to elementary students’ academic formation) as well as to teachers, parents, and the Diocese of Knoxville community.

“We want our community to know our schools are places with high academic standards and places where our children will excel academically and spiritually,” she said.

“This is a measure of our own performance. We can learn from this experience. If our schools don’t have this outside influence, then there is no mirror to look into in order to make any needed changes.”

Mrs. Prater said that just going through the accreditation process improves the schools.

“It makes you look at our operations with a very analytical view to see what is working and what isn’t working as well, so we can have continuous improvement and get better,” she said, noting that the school system received highest marks for its Catholic identity, with the second-highest marks given for leadership.

“They commended us for our high test scores, which happens because of our Catholic identity and leadership. We are living our mission in all of our schools, and we have a culture of teacher leaders and student leaders in addition to diocesan school leaders,” Mrs. Prater said.

Mrs. Prater also noted the areas for improvement cited by the accreditation review team: resources allocation and marketing.

“We are exhausting our resources, using them thoroughly, which is good stewardship. Resources are a challenge for every Catholic school system, and I am proud of what we do with what we have. We feel like we have huge support from our parishes and our community,” she said. “We just need to get more students in our schools.”

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