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AdvancEd praises KCSD, but says room for improvement
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The Kershaw County School District (KCSD) received high marks from AdvancED, a non-profit education accreditation organization that, according to its website, “conducts rigorous, on-site reviews of a variety of educational institutions and systems to ensure that all learners realize their full potential.”

During a report to the Kershaw County Board of Trustees on Feb. 5, KCSD Executive Director for K-12 Instructional Support Dr. Alisa Taylor said AdvancED also said there are things the district can do better.

AdvancED puts districts and other educational institutions through the accreditation process every five years. In 2013, the district received a recommendation for accreditation by the firm, in effect maintaining its accreditation from five years before that.

As in 2008 and 2013, the district spent a year preparing for AdvancED’s three-day visit, including a nine-month “self-evaluation,” the results of which it shared with the company as part of the accreditation process. Five years ago, AdvancED praised the district for its “great leadership” and “great communication” with the community, as well as its efforts its fiscal planning and resource management.

Taylor said this year, AdvancED looked at three main areas -- leadership, learning and resource capacity -- as a six-member team visited eight schools the previous week: Camden and Lugoff-Elgin high schools; Leslie Stover and Lugoff-Elgin middle schools; and Lugoff, Midway, Pine Tree Hill and Wateree elementary schools. She said AdvancED conducted 61 classroom observations.

“You can see that we are very close to the average score,” Taylor said, referring to what AdvancED terms average international network scores from accreditations conducted across all 50 states and 72 countries. “We scored higher in equitable learning, which is a funny way of saying every child has an equal chance to learn and participate in discussion in the learning. We (also) scored higher than the average in digital learning, so all of that technology work we’ve been doing paid off in terms of our classroom observations.”

Taylor said AdvancED also interviewed 325 people, including 160 students, as well as parents, teachers and administrators.

“The lead evaluator … from Duluth, Minn., said that the community members group was absolutely awesome. They were so positive about our schools, and that they raved about our community, and she was thinking of moving here -- but I think you should also be aware that the wind chill factor in her home town was 50 below, so that could have had something to do with it,” Taylor joked.

She said AdvancED’s report back to the district consisted of “broad brush” findings, with a more formal report to come in 30 days. On Feb. 5, however, Taylor shared those broad brush findings with school board members.

“First, they said the hospitality was exceptional, our organization was terrific, our schools were great and they so enjoyed their visits in every school and were so impressed with the work that we were doing in every school,” Taylor said. “One evaluator was particularly thrilled because she got kissed on the cheek by a kindergarten student during circle time. She sat down with them and the little fella just leaned over and kissed her. That helped us.”

Taylor said AdvancED determined it was clear everyone in the district is in the business of nurturing children and making sure they’re safe. Evaluators also said the district has maximized its resources in operations, facilities, communications and human resources.

She pointed out, however, that the district’s work focuses on student achievement -- teaching and learning.

“And it’s missing,” Taylor bluntly reported.

According to Taylor, AdvancED said the district needs to continue to use data to makes sure it is meeting the need of all of its students, whether they are at the “top,” “in the middle” or “those who are struggling.”

Specifically, she said, AdvancED suggested two areas the district really needed to work on, the first of which read:

“Alignment of a systemic, enacted curriculum with current standards, valid assessments and clearly defined expectations for student performance.”

Taylor attempted to explain what AdvancED had written by using an example of a home owner’s association (HOA).

“Suppose that the goal for that home owner’s association is that you’re going to have a pristine lawn and everybody’s lawn is going to be beautiful and excellent. So, one of the standards might be to develop and maintain a lush lawn that’s going to stay green and weed free during the growing season,” Taylor said.

That HOA may send postcard with the goal written on it and, separately, a timeline showing the different tasks to be the lawn during specific times of the year it expects the homeowner to perform. During the year, HOA officers will monitor members’ activities.

“So, in the winter, they’re going to come along and see if you have moss on your lawn. In the autumn, are there any insects visible in your grass? In the spring, did you put on the fertilizer? In the summer, is the lawn healthy and green?” Taylor said. “All that fancy jargon (from AdvancED) -- basically, what they said that we need are what are our standards, what we expect our children to do, and how are we going to determine that they’ve done it.”

Taylor said other districts have done this type of work, and warned it is laborious work involving the creation of “pacing guides” and providing testing quizzes. She said in talking with KCSD Director for K-12 Education Tim Hopkins they realized the district has done this type of thing before.

“They’re not current, and I think that’s what the team found -- that we did not have the assessments along the way and we did not have expectations and they felt that that work would so improve the quality of what we do for students,” she said.

AdvancED’s other remark indicated that the district is not doing enough to evaluate programs of all kinds.

“They said we appear to be a system of schools, not a school system,” Taylor said. “We have all these wonderful schools and they are doing whatever they want to do and they don’t know what the school down the road from them is doing. We’re not driving, from the district level, quality instruction -- it’s all over the place, and we don’t know how good it is.”

Taylor said AdvancED wants the district to evaluate what it’s implemented to know if they are working and are worth what the district is paying for those programs.

“Programs” includes software programs. Taylor said there are more than 200 pieces of software running throughout the district.

“We have never stopped to determine whether any of them benefit our students, how much they benefit our students and whether they’re worth the cost, although some of them are free. There’s a smorgasbord of anything you might want to use. So, their thinking was why don’t you figure out what really works and just use that,” Taylor said.

For the district’s next five-year journey toward another re-accreditation, Taylor said AdvancED wants the district to look at maximizing resources for instruction (such as the pacing guides and assessments), and to weigh their programs to determine if they are working for the district’s students.