Review team recommends diocesan schools for accreditation as system

Students from St. Patrick School in Washington form a prayer circle before the recent IESA sectional cross country meet in Bloomington. Catholic schools of the Diocese of Peoria were noted for their "obvious expression of Catholic identity" by the external review team from AdvancEd. (Provided photo/Kara Kamienski Photography)

Several years of strategic planning by the Office of Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Peoria earned a glowing report card last week, when the entire school system was recommended for accreditation by an external review team from AdvancEd.

“We were validated in the fact that we have excellent schools. They said when they were out in the classrooms . . . the instruction was just excellent. The students were engaged. They felt they understood the expectations of them as a student and that was validation,” said Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese.

“We were validated in the fact that we have excellent schools. They said when they were out in the classrooms . . . the instruction was just excellent. The students were engaged. They felt they understood the expectations of them as a student and that was validation.”

The team from AdvancEd, considered a global leader in providing continuous improvement and accreditation services to more than 32,000 institutions, visited 10 schools around the diocese and did 90 formal classroom observations during the visit, which occurred Oct. 10-12. Lead evaluator Sandra Leatherwood, who is director of Catholic education for the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, said they conducted 261 interviews with teachers and students, principals and pastors, support staff and other “stakeholders.”

Diocesan schools visited by the external review team included: The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign; St. Paul School, Macomb; Immaculate Conception School, Monmouth; Notre Dame High School, St. Mark School and St. Philomena School, all in Peoria; St. Thomas School, Philo; St. Mary School, Pontiac; St. Michael the Archangel School, Streator; and St. Patrick School, Washington. Weiss said the evaluators were interested in seeing schools of all sizes in urban and rural settings.

In addition, the team talked to Weiss and her staff, including Jerry Sanderson and Dr. Susan Stolt, associate superintendents, as well as members of the Diocesan Education Commission and diocesan staff. Msgr. James Kruse, vicar general, and Patricia Gibson, chancellor and director of the curia, also were asked for their input.

The review team reported their findings during a meeting at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria before members returned to their own dioceses on Oct. 12.

MANY “NOTABLE FINDINGS”

Among the “powerful practices” they praised was the strategic planning done as part of “Faith in Our Future.” Started during the 2013-14 academic year, the initiative engaged the 44 schools of the diocese in examining what they were doing in terms of faith formation, classroom instruction, budgeting, development, marketing and enrollment so a common language and common practices could be established.

“This was an exciting feat, a magnificent feat that you took part in as a diocese,” Leatherwood said. “From the direction of the Office of Catholic Schools, each school has their own strategic plan.”

“If we’re a system, we need to look at the health of the system,” Weiss explained. “If one of our individual schools is not doing what they need to do in regard to the standards, that affects the health of the entire system.

“That’s why we felt this would be a challenge for us. We realize how spread out and how large our diocese is,” she said. “It’s been a really interesting, mapping journey we’ve been on and how to best do this as a system.”

Moving in the same direction with the same vision prepared them for the AdvancEd accreditation process, Weiss said.

Leatherwood said there were also several “notable findings” during the visit. These included recognition of the Office of Catholic Schools for providing “exceptional spiritual formation experiences” for school administrators and staffs.

The team also commended the schools for their “obvious expression of Catholic identity.”

“This was something we came back with after visiting the schools, after talking to students, after talking to the principals and teachers,” Leatherwood said. “It was very evident that you have a true Catholic educational program.”

In addition, the team found it notable that the principals of Region I, which includes schools in and around Peoria, had piloted a program for professional development. An “improvement priority” was that this program be expanded to all four regions.

The review team praised as “notable” a financial planning tool that had been developed to assist schools in making a five-year budget projection that takes into account student enrollment, tuition levels and other sources of revenue.

MOVING FORWARD

As an organization devoted to continuous improvement, the AdvancEd team also suggested “improvement priorities” that must be addressed within the next two years. Designing and implementing a process for the “systematic review of curriculum” was one of them.

“We know we need to evaluate curriculum,” Weiss told The Post. “The teachers have been asking for that, as well.”

“The overall emphasis — the reason AdvancEd exists — is to get schools into a cycle of continuous improvement. The whole point of the process is that we systematize the improvement process so it continues.”

Doing that across the system will allow for the same expectations and measurements, she said.

Sanderson took the lead on the three-year accreditation process and he said the Office of Catholic Schools is “up for the challenge” to find ways to collaborate better and make the needed changes.

“The overall emphasis — the reason AdvancED exists — is to get schools into a cycle of continuous improvement,” he said. “The whole point of the process is that we systematize the improvement process so it continues.”

“You have not finished and closed the book,” Leatherwood said during the exit report. “You have opened the book to a journey to address those improvement priorities, to move all your schools equitably forward.”

It will require “deliberate and strategic actions to ensure that every child, every day is being prepared and achieving success for their future,” she said.

AdvancED was created through a merger of the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. It expanded in 2012 with the addition of the Northwest Accreditation Commission. Schools served by AdvancED enroll more than 20 million students in the United States and 70 other countries.

 

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