When I describe Eagle Rock School to folks who might be unfamiliar with our work, I often get a quizzical look and the question, “So do students get a high school diploma?”
Frequently, because we adults choose to live in the past and therefore fall victim to our own experience with school, it’s difficult to understand Eagle Rock’s unique and innovative approach. Eagle Rock is not alone in the quest to engage young people creatively and deeply. There are many schools – public, private/independent, charter, etc., – who are doing innovative work, and we partner with many of these around the country.
So how then do people know whether any of these schools are legitimate? Who ensures they are meeting the latest professional standards? Who governs their behavior? Who verifies what occurs on their campuses is worthy of a high school diploma?
The answer varies from state to state but the consistent theme is that schools meet a set of standards laid out by an accrediting agency. And accrediting agencies can be governmental, or they can be private entities.
While accreditations differ from agency to agency, becoming accredited is typically a multi-faceted process that involves the following steps:
- Self Study: The program seeking accreditation – in this case, Eagle Rock School – conducts a self-study and reflects on how it is doing based on a set of standards from the accrediting agency. When complete, the self-study is submitted to the accrediting agency.
- Site Visit: The accrediting agency assembles an evaluation team of educators and school leaders who are familiar with its standards. The team spends an average of four days on campus conducting interviews, reading documents, observing classes and other school activities – all with an eye toward developing its own assessment of the school’s strengths and weaknesses. In particular, the team is looking for areas of congruence and incongruence with the school’s self study. Every accrediting agency has a set of standards and the team will also be looking for evidence of compliance with those standards.
- Evaluation Report and Accreditation Status: The accrediting agency generates a report based upon the site visit and self-study. The report indicates areas of strengths as well as areas where the school requires more attention. The agency will also indicate whether the school will continue to be accredited or whether there are issues that call for major reworking prior to reaccreditation being awarded.
- Reporting and follow-up: Accreditation cycles vary but a typical self-study takes a year or two to complete. The following year, a site visit occurs, and following that visit, a report is generated. After that, the school has a period of time (often a year) to address concerns raised in the report. There is typically another report due three years later that includes updates on progress in areas of significance, and then the cycle repeats itself.
In the state of Colorado, the State Board of Education accredits all public schools. With regard to all non-public schools (Eagle Rock is a “non-public school”), the State Board recognizes six independent accrediting agencies. Eagle Rock is accredited by two of those agencies:
- AdvancED Colorado (part of NCA Commission on Accreditation)
- Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS)
Additionally, the outdoor/experiential education program here at Eagle Rock is accredited by the Association for Experiential Education.
Last month, we concluded the site visit aspect of our ACIS accreditation. A team of seven educators spent four days on campus looking at our curriculum, board governance, administrative systems, financial management, facilities, personnel management, residential life, food service, admissions, risk management, student support, and pretty much everything else related to school administration.
While we haven’t seen the written report, we do know we’ll receive valuable feedback and recommendations on moving Eagle Rock forward. We put a tremendous amount of effort and intention into the self-study, and our staff and students were honest, gracious and helpful participants in the site visit. The visiting team was both moved by the experience of Eagle Rock and eager to offer feedback that will help us move along our path of organizational maturity.
It is often said that a school will get out of accreditation what they put into it. For Eagle Rock, the timing couldn’t have been better for this review. I have a year and a half under my belt as head of school and we are still in the midst of transition. The ACIS review has helped us identify our greatest strengths and our highest priority areas for growth and development. Our intention is to use the feedback from ACIS as a jumping off point for a strategic planning process that will guide us for the next three to five years.
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About the Author: Jeff Liddle is the head of school at the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center — a nationally recognized, tuition-free residential high school in Estes Park, Colo., that offers a second chance to students who have not been able to succeed in a traditional high school setting, and a professional development center that supports high schools nationally in re-engaging youth in their own education. As head of school, Jeff is responsible for leading Eagle Rock’s school community and its executive leadership team; interfacing with the organization’s board of directors; and, overseeing the vision and financial health of the organization.