The Visiting Team Experience: The Culmination of Blake’s Accreditation Process
Last fall’s three-and-a-half day visit by a team of educators from 24 different independent schools was the third major element of Blake’s Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) accreditation process. This visiting team was selected by the ISACS director of accreditation services and charged with evaluating The Blake School.
Two other major elements of the accreditation process preceded the ISACS team visit. In late 2008, Blake conducted an extensive constituent survey; this was followed by a year-long self-study of the School in 2009-10. A resulting 273-page Self-Study Report incorporated the survey findings within 36 individual reports that detailed the current strengths, challenges and plans and priorities of the School’s programs and operations. The ISACS visiting team read the report prior to its visit to Blake.
The Visit -- Day One
On Nov. 7, 2010, Blake students provided the visiting team with a captivating introduction to the School. Upon arrival at the hotel, each of the 26 educators was greeted with five personalized letters of welcome from Lower, Middle and Upper School students. That afternoon, 16 pairs/triads of student-hosts guided the visiting team through their campus building(s), articulately and enthusiastically describing their classrooms, teachers, classmates, courses and learning experiences. Later that afternoon, the Upper School a cappella choir performed several beautiful songs for the visitors during a small reception attended by a cross-section of Blake community members.
These three displays of the students’ capabilities and heartfelt dedication to Blake wowed the visiting team and set the tone for a productive and successful visit for the ISACS delegation. The students provided an honest, personal and passionate perspective of Blake, which helped frame the team’s exploration of the School during the next two days.
On Sunday evening, the chair of the visiting team, Dr. Ward Ghory, head of University School of Milwaukee, led its members in team-building activities to ensure a high functioning, cohesive team. The group then developed a plan of action for the next several days of focused work at Blake.
The Visit -- Days Two and Three
On Monday and Tuesday, the visiting team members met with nearly 75 percent of Blake’s employees, as well as with the Board of Trustees, members of the Alumni Board, leaders of the Parent Association, and various parent and student groups. The visiting educators observed classes and student assemblies, ate lunch with students and employees, attended faculty meetings, reviewed reams of written and online materials and asked innumerable questions of Blake community members.
Each evening, the visiting team members shared information learned, identified questions to pursue and wrote responses to sections of Blake’s Self-Study Report. These exercises helped the team achieve its ultimate goal: to determine if Blake’s policies and practices, as described in the Self-Study Report, reflected the daily reality of school life and aligned with the 50 ISACS Standards of Membership.
The Visit -- Day Four
The team’s final morning was spent reading and discussing each section of the Visiting Team Report and finalizing its major commendations and recommendations. At noon, the team members dispersed, feeling energized and satisfied with their collective efforts to provide The Blake School with an honest and accurate assessment of its institution and community. As the educators departed, praise for the School was plentiful and words of appreciation for the positive professional experience were universal.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Ghory spoke to all Blake employees. He offered a summary of the visiting team’s impressions of the School community and read the major commendations and recommendations.
Dr. Ghory acknowledged Blake for its thoroughness in executing each step of the accreditation process. He stated that it was evident to the visiting team that honest and thoughtful dialogue and reflection characterized the School’s efforts to create a meaningful experience throughout the nearly three-year process. The team found the School community to be “a compelling and provocative place to visit.”
The visiting team commended Blake for:
1) “Cultivating a proud sense of institutional identity.”
2) “Creating comfortable and intentional environments for learning.”
3) “Completing a decade of planned growth and strategic improvement.”
4) “Demonstrating steadfast commitment to pluralism, inclusion, equity, and justice.”
The team recognized the power of Blake’s collaborative community and how the various constituencies work together to improve the institution, always determined to stay true to the School’s mission and core values. The sense of ownership of decisions, small and large, was noted, as was the School’s complex decision-making process. Blake was congratulated for its mindful and deliberate efforts to provide student-centered classrooms, playgrounds and gathering spaces, and to create healthy, authentic relationships among the students and adults throughout the School.
The visiting team also acknowledged the vast number of positive changes at Blake in the last decade. It highlighted the School’s excellent work in the areas of leadership, curriculum, pluralism, faculty excellence, service, and financial soundness. The team praised Blake for its remarkable commitment to, and inspiring steps taken toward, creating and sustaining a pluralistic community.
The team offered three recommendations for the School’s consideration:
1) “Acknowledge, assess and address the sense of ‘stress’ many faculty and staff express.”
2) “Thoughtfully manage the pace of change.”
3) “Move forward judiciously with its next strategic plan.”
The intensity of the Blake work environment — and the inherent costs and benefits to the employees in such an environment — was a major theme identified by the team throughout its report. The team noted how the institutional (and often, individual) expectation for employee excellence contributed to a feeling of continual pressure. The number and scope of changes within the School during the last decade exacerbated the situation because employees needed to learn new skills (e.g., creating curriculum maps; using advanced technological tools); gain new competencies (e.g., developing a more sophisticated understanding of students’ cultural beliefs and practices; applying this cultural competency in daily interactions with students and their families); and manage new systems (e.g., Effective Teaching Initiative; PK-12 department chair structure).
The visiting team suggested that Blake reflect on ways to integrate current initiatives and to slow down the pace of major changes in the near-term future. Rather than develop a long to-do list in the upcoming strategic plan, the ISACS team recommended that the Board of Trustees consolidate and refine existing programs and systems. In addition, the team suggested that the strategic plan address needed improvements as outlined in the master plans for the facilities on all three campuses.
The Next Steps
The 50-page Visiting Team Report offered more than 70 other recommendations (and more than 100 commendations) that were geared to specific operations of the School (i.e., purpose, goals and philosophy; school community; program; personnel; and governance and administration). Over the next several months, Blake will consider the recommendations to determine the course of action it believes is most appropriate. In response to the Visiting Team Report, the School will write a Reaction Report in which each recommendation will be accepted, modified or rejected. This report will be sent to the ISACS Evaluation Review Committee next fall.
The Reaction Report will be accompanied by a copy of Blake’s new strategic plan. The Board of Trustees began its initial discussions of this plan in fall 2009 and will complete the process this spring. Both the Board and Blake administrators have spent significant time reflecting on the progress of its current strategic plan, “Blake 2010,” along with the Self-Study Report’s 160-plus plans and priorities, the results of the Constituent Survey 2008, and the feedback from the ISACS visiting team. All of these informational sources are being considered as the next strategic plan is formulated. Just as “Blake 2010” did for the past five years, the new strategic plan will guide the School’s priorities for use of its time, talents and resources in the coming five years.
As I conclude my responsibilities as Blake’s ISACS accreditation chair, the School is primed to use the results learned through this accreditation process to develop a dynamic action plan. The outcomes of the new strategic plan will be revealed when the School begins its next accreditation cycle with a constituent survey in 2015-16.