Polk County Schools system achieves five-year accreditation renewal

Published 6:45 pm Thursday, December 5, 2013

by Samantha Hurst

An AdvancED review team has renewed Polk County Schools’ district accreditation for the next five years.

The accreditation team that visited Polk County Schools during the spring, summer and fall of 2013 was impressed with the strong culture created in the system, according to Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Aaron Greene.

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“They talked a lot about the level of community support for our schools and they talked about how that was unique and very evident,” Greene said. “We
really believe the only way we can provide the quality education to our students that we do is through the community support and parent involvement that we have.”

During the spring, summer and fall of 2013, Polk County Schools participated in a standards-based quality and performance review.

The presentation included discussion of the district’s strengths and areas in which Polk County Schools can improve, Greene said.

The review analyzed district and school self-study documentation; student performance results; stakeholder survey feedback; school and district improvement efforts; interviews with almost 400 students, parents, staff and community members; and classroom observations at each school.

Receiving accreditation assures that Polk County Schools meets high performance-based standards.

Gaining accreditation also means a school system is following its motto and mission statement. In Polk County, Greene said that means everyone in the system, from board of education members to the dedicated members of the lunchroom staff are “doing what is right for the students.”

Accreditation team members studied the daily workings inside classrooms and the larger overall board direction provided to schools and schools’ staff members. The review of the system focused on topics such as purpose and direction, governance and leadership, teaching and assessing for learning, resources and support systems and using results for continuous improvement.

A positive review on governance and leadership reflects that the Polk County Schools Board of Education works well with county and city leadership as well to improve the education level of students.

Greene pointed out that among the systems board members there are 115 years of collective education experience, which is also beneficial. This allows the board to make decisions on the larger scale but also afford schools enough autonomy to educate students based on their own schools’ needs, Greene said.

When it comes to teaching and assessing learning, reviewers considered the curriculum and how the system assesses whether or not students are performing at the level they should.

“They literally watch not the teachers, but the students, to see if they are engaged,” Greene said.

The fourth standard – resources and support systems – assessed how, for example, the system employs a blended model for pre-Kindergarten to use federal, state and local funds, as well as tuition to see that a higher number of students receive pre-K education.

“They wanted to see if we used our funds, sometimes creatively, to make sure we are providing quality programs for kids,” Greene said. “It’s a lot of work but some other school systems aren’t willing to do that.”

Polk County administrators estimate that kids can get up to about four and 1/2 years of extra education through pre-K, after school and summer school for students with the most educational needs.

Ensuring those students continue to grow educationally brings in a focus on results for continuous improvement.

Polk County Technology Director Dave Scherping said the review team wanted to see that the system continually used data to ensure the curriculum is making a difference in student performance and school success.

“If not, they want to know are you making changes to improve your programs if your data is not making a difference,” Scherping said. “We really had to take a very hard look at ourselves from how we govern custodians to the chairs in pre-K or how the superintendent leads the board.”

Greene said this area was the one place the review team felt Polk County Schools could improve.

“One thing we constantly debate with ourselves is formative assessment – instead of you giving a test at the end of the year, do you regularly give testing or standardize tests throughout the year?” Greene explained. “We argue we do that a lot more personally and individually… but we also don’t stick our heads in the sand and say we aren’t going to do that.”

Greene said AdvancED would like to see a district plan to monitor when and in what ways students might be missing the mark. Greene said Polk schools do this through a strong advocacy program where, for example, in the high school students spend 20-25 minutes with the same teacher every day to review what struggles the students may be facing.

“They would argue that we don’t know for sure that program is working well. We argue that we have people in place who know because they are involved with the students every day,” Scherping said.

Scherping said the team did comment on how they couldn’t believe how well the students behave.

“They also noted that students seemed to feel safe and comfortable in Polk County schools, and that they came to school feeling like that staff cared about them,” Greene said.

More information on AdvancED and the district accreditation process can be found at www.advanc-ed.org.