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Episcopal Schools and Accreditation

Ann Mellow, Associate Director
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Last Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 10:17 AM
Date Posted: Dec 4, 2013, 09:47 AM

Each year, the NAES office receives inquiries about the accreditation process: How can we best integrate our Episcopal identity into an independent school accreditation process? How do we articulate the unique governance structure of our school in relation to our accrediting agency? How can we insure that the visiting team understands us as an Episcopal school? How do we educate the vestry and parish leaders? This article offers a basic overview of accreditation along with six simple ways to strengthen the accreditation process in an Episcopal school.

Why Accreditation?

As private, non-public schools, Episcopal schools are not subject to state-mandated curricula or many (if not most) of the educational laws and requirements that regulate public schools. Instead, each school develops its own educational mission and philosophy, along with programs and policies to support that mission. This gives Episcopal schools (like other private schools) enormous latitude in their mission, culture, educational philosophy, and religious and spiritual life. But, as the National Association of Independent Schools notes, “this freedom from governmental oversight provides its own challenge to find alternative ways to assess and demonstrate quality.” For independent schools, “accreditation is both a suitable vehicle for school accountability and an effective catalyst for school improvement.”

Accreditation is a peer-review process composed of two key components: a comprehensive self-study of the school’s mission, programs, and operations in relation to a set of defined accreditation criteria; and a multi-day site visit by a team of outside educators. Most schools are accredited every ten years, with an interim progress report and site visit in year five.

NAES strongly urges and recommends that all Episcopal schools pursue and maintain accreditation as a sign of the school’s commitment to mission-driven excellence, professional standards, and continuous improvement.

Episcopal elementary and secondary schools are normally accredited by a regional or state independent school accrediting agency or, if located in one of six southwestern states, by the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools.

Episcopal early childhood education programs are normally registered with and/or licensed by the state within which they operate and, in addition, may be accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency.

Working Effectively with Your Accrediting Agency

Although most state and regional accrediting agencies accredit both secular and religiously-affiliated schools, they may or may not know a great deal about Episcopal schools: their history and mission, the variety of their governance structures, and the varied ways that they live out an Episcopal identity. It falls to the school to educate each accrediting agency and visiting committee chair about those areas of the school’s mission, culture, programs, or operations that are related to being an Episcopal school.

Similarly, because accreditation manuals are designed for secular institutions, each Episcopal school needs to be intentional about how the school’s Episcopal identity will be addressed in the self- study and site visit. For schools with a sponsoring organization, such as parish day schools, governance and church-school relations need to be given particularly careful attention.

Six Simple Ways to Strengthen the Accreditation Process

Talk with your accrediting agency’s executive director and accreditation staff about Episcopal schools in general and about your school in particular.

As soon as a date has been set for the school’s accreditation visit, the head of school can initiate conversations with the executive director and accreditation staff about the school’s Episcopal governance, mission, and identity. These conversations are a great opportunity to explore any questions or concerns that the accrediting agency or the school may have about the upcoming process. It is particularly helpful for parish day schools that may have a governance structure different from those of secular independent schools. It is also an early opportunity to talk about any significant events since the last accreditation, such as changes in head or rector, enrollment fluctuations, or new initiatives. NAES’ Principles of Good Practice series and What Are the Principal Qualities that Distinguish a School as Episcopal? can help independent school association leaders better understand the key characteristics of Episcopal schools.

Educate your parish, cathedral, or other sponsoring organization about the accreditation process.

It is unlikely that the rector and vestry will know a great deal if anything about the agency that accredits the school, what independent school or early childhood accreditation involves, and how it is accomplished. The head of school and the executive committee of the school board should not overlook these parish leaders when embarking on the school’s accreditation process. Church leaders are usually quite interested in accreditation and impressed with its comprehensive approach. Conversations with parish leaders such as the rector, wardens, and key vestry members can identify early on any areas of church-school relations that will need extra attention during the accreditation process and enroll their support for the process and its importance.

Take time to map out how the school’s Episcopal identity will be addressed in the self-study.

Ideally, the accreditation process is an opportunity to take a broad and deep look at what it means to be an Episcopal school: how and where is our “Episcopal identity” expressed, what are its strengths, and where does it need additional attention? It can be easy to relegate Episcopal identity (and the chaplain!) to sections that address chapel and religious studies and overlook other relevant areas and sub-committees such as admissions, student support services, community service, and policies or programs related to discipline, financial aid, or diversity and inclusion.

The school’s self-study steering committee (which is normally composed of faculty members and administrators) can be charged to identify where in the self-study the school’s Episcopal identity will be addressed and insure that the membership of various sub-committees, along with the self-study document itself, reflect those commitments.

NAES' Episcopal Identity and Culture Self-Study can be easily incorporated into the self-study process and is specifically designed to complement an accreditation manual provided the school's accreditation agency.

Clarify how your sponsoring organization’s leaders will be involved in the accreditation process.

Normally, rectors, bishops, vestry members, or parishioners who serve on the school’s board will be involved in the accreditation process in their roles as trustees, and they need to know those expectations. But it is equally important to decide whether any additional input from and/or conversations with church or parish leaders should be included in the accreditation process. This is particularly important if your school and church are anticipating changes that will have a profound impact on the school, such as the upcoming retirement of a longstanding rector or head of school, a major capital project being entertained by the parish and/or school, or contemplated changes to the church-school corporate or financial relationship. Talk with your accrediting agency and visiting committee chair in advance about the most appropriate ways to gather information and structure conversations.

Request a visiting committee chair and/or visiting team member who is familiar with similar schools.

Accrediting teams are usually composed of a diverse cross-section of experienced educators and administrators from a range of schools. This diversity insures an enriched and rigorous accreditation process. At the same time, it is enormously helpful to have a visiting team chair and/or team member(s) who can understand the faith-based nature of your school and, where relevant, your governance structure. It may be the head of another Episcopal school or the head of school that is similar in structure or mission. It is not inappropriate for the head of school to discuss the composition of the visiting team with the accrediting agency in advance.

Discuss your school’s Episcopal identity with the visiting committee chair in advance. 

Normally, the visiting committee chair makes a site visit some months in advance of the accreditation itself in order to become familiar with the school and to review logistics for the visiting team. During that visit, the head of school normally shares key information about the school. Set aside time to discuss the school’s Episcopal identity (and, in the case of a parish or cathedral school, about the church-school relationship) and give the chair ample opportunity to ask questions.

A quality accreditation process is not a checklist of one-size-fits-all standards but a mission-centered, reflective process that challenges and assists the school to be focused, generative, dynamic, and forward looking. For an Episcopal school, it means discussing, assessing, articulating and setting sights for the school’s Episcopal identity as well. Ideally, the school emerges with a fresh sense of where it is, where it wants to go, and what it needs to do—including what it means to be an Episcopal school.