Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

Middle States Accreditation Is ‘A Very Exciting Time’ for Columbia High School

The long process of review, training and strategizing that go into Middle States Accreditation may seem arduous to some, but to Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron, MSA represents “a very exciting time” for CHS.

Aaron updated the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on the progress of CHS’s re-accreditation on Monday, February 2. (See Aaron’s report here or read it below.)

The review is comprehensive, including 12 “standards”: Facilities, Finance, Governance and Leadership, Health and Safety, Information Resources. School Improvement Planning, School Organization and Staff, Student Life and Activities, Student Services, Mission, Assessment and Evidence of Student Learning, and Educational Programs. The process involves administrators, teachers, parents and guardians, and — notably — students.

Another opportunity for community engagement beyond the school is a proposed spring 2015 conference. Details have not yet been announced.

An outcome of the process will be that CHS will have developed a 5-7 year strategic plan that contains five strategic goals: two related to student performance, one related to organizational structure, one related to facilities, and one to be determined. CHS began this MSA process in July 2013 and plans to complete it by October 2015. The MSA will send its final report in early 2016.

A highlight of the process — which Aaron calls a “validation of school quality and student achievement that fosters continuous school improvement” — has been student engagement or, as Aaron put it, how the process “connects with students in the building.”

Aaron noted that, even though the process is creating a vision for CHS 2025 when current students would be long gone, the students were very “mature” and understood the value of participating in a process which would not directly benefit them. Aaron said that students responded by saying, “Our ideas matter because there are kids coming after us.” She noted that many current CHS students have siblings who will attend in future and faculty and staff have children who will one day be enrolled at CHS.

Aaron said that students had been particularly helpful in explaining the culture of classrooms as well as “what does your physical class look like.”

“But what’s been really helpful is to hear how thoughtful and how quickly students dive in.” Aaron said that the overall message has been, “what matters first and foremost is the teacher.”

Board member Beth Daugherty asked if reviewing of AP access and criteria for getting into higher level classes were a part of the MSA reviewing process.

“Absolutely,” said Aaron. “This is a really deep process and one of the things that I think we all find so powerful and empowering is the conversations that such a process engenders.”

“Everything is on the table,” Aaron added. “So our curricula, our academic placement, our opportunities for student growth and development, opportunities for blended learning, opportunities for teacher initiative, for answering questions about what we teach and why we teach it and how we teach it, what we value, what we learn, how we learn it — those are all very much a part of all the work we are doing with Middle States.”

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said that as Chair of the Facilities, Finance and Technology Committee, one of the things she is excited about is the vision for a physical plan for Columbia. “My own vision is that the buildings reflect the excellence inside” and “get the students excited,” said Muhammad.

Aaron also said that the process is also being communicated to the middle schools. “One of the things we are trying to do is work more closely with the middle school principals and administrative teams.” Aaron said that she saw CHS as “the cathedral in the district” — the “culmination” of all elementary and middle school education where all students come together and from “where all the students go out to what they are doing next.”

For more on the Middle States Association, visit here.

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