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Quantico M/HS assessment brings tears

By: Mike DiCicco

Quantico Sentry
Quantico, VA | April 24, 2012

When Quantico Middle/High School acting Principal Dan Mulhern and School Improvement Team leader Peg Larkin got the results of their school's recent accreditation assessment, they both broke into tears.

In its self-assessment, the team had given the school a reasonably high rating, but the accreditation team, consisting of two members of the AdvancED System Accreditation Institute and two outside Department of Defense Education Activity employees, disagreed.

Instead, on April 6, after a three-day visit, the team gave the school what AdvancED Vice President of Accreditation Brad Jacobson said was one of the highest ratings he has ever seen. On four of the seven standards on which the school was judged, the team gave AdvancED's highest rating of "highly functional."

Having been involved in a number of school evaluations, Jacobson said, "This is the highest number of 'highly functional' ratings that I've been involved with.

"While it is not unusual for a school to receive this rating on one or two standards, he said, scores of "operational" are far more common.

"We're all proud. This has been great," said Larkin, who also teaches high school math at the school.

All DoDEA schools are accredited every five years, and this was the middle/high school's first evaluation since the school system switched to AdvancED as the accrediting institution.

The School Improvement Team began preparing for the accreditation when it formed five years ago, although some of the team members have changed over the years. Each of the five current members leads a committee of staff, parents and students focused on one of the evaluation standards, and all of the committees also concentrate on the standards of "vision and purpose" and "commitment to continuous improvement."

"This is not only something this team has embraced, but the parents and the students are involved in this," Mulhern said.

Larkin said the team had also tapped into various talents of the school staff during the process, while the students who were chosen to sit on the various committees "were not shy" about sharing their ideas. She said she thought the total effort had solidified the school community.

During the first three or four years, the team focused on refining the school's practices and collecting data, said career and technical education teacher Josh Thom, who headed the committee on documenting and using results. Then, over the last year and a half, the group figured out how to document evidence of its fulfillment of the various standards.

Jean Arcuni, the sixth-grade language teacher who chaired the committee on teaching and learning, said each standard required a vast amount of documentation, as well as a written narrative. "We can't just say we're doing it. They have to see it," she said.

One idea that came out of the process is the practice of retaining samples of students' work and test data in folders, known as red and gold folders, after the school colors. This has served both to improve teaching and learning, and to document what students and teachers are doing.

Mulhern said the folders make it easier for teachers to group students to create curricula that will challenge each group, and Thom noted that they help students better track and take ownership of their progress.

"We did numerous things along that vein," Thom said.

The folders also provided evidence for the AdvancED team to examine during their visit to the school. Larkin, who chaired the committee on stakeholder communications and relationships, said one change that came out of her group was the idea for a "breaking news" letter released by the principal on an as-needed basis, a concept suggested by a parent who wanted more frequent and focused communication rather than the quarterly newsletter can provide.

Communication was one of the standards for which the school received a "highly functional" rating. Arcuni said another of the evaluators' findings was the sense of family in the school community. When members of the assessment team met separately with students, parents and staff, one question they asked was what word described the school. The two most common words used were "caring" and "nurturing."

On the Monday after spring break, Thom said, dozens of students approached him asking how the school had been rated, and administrators decided to hold an assembly to brief the student body on the results of the evaluation.

"The kids were just overflowing. They just wanted to show what the school does," Arcuni said.

Thom said the assessment team left the school not only with accolades but also with advice on how to bring all of its standards up to "highly functional" for its next accreditation. Jacobson said his AdvancED teams never leave a school without some parting advice. In the case of Quantico Middle/High School, he said the team advised that the school refine its system of assessing student performance and establish more opportunities for staff to meet and collaborate.

However, he said, "We found that they're extremely mission- and vision-driven," with an "aggressive, enthusiastic" School Improvement Team. "They base everything they do in the school on their mission and vision," Jacobson said.

He also said the high level of student and community involvement demonstrated the effectiveness of the school's communication skills.

"We found stakeholders were very enthusiastic about their support for the school," Jacobson said.

And, at a time when bullying has become a major topic of conversation and concern in schools, he said his team found no evidence of this problem at Quantico.

"One of the things we found really outstanding was the culture of the school," he said, adding that there seemed to be a remarkable level of respect among students and teachers. "It's a great learning environment."

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