Oconee County Schools is well on its way to having its accreditation certified for another five years, an AdvancED External Review team determined this week.
The group, comprised of six former superintendents and other school leaders from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Iowa, visited Oconee as part of the process required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council.
Over the course of four days, the team examined data compiled by the system, visited 36 classrooms at six schools and interviewed 279 "stakeholders," including leadership, staff, students and parents.
Lead evaluator Bill Rivenbark, a retired superintendent from North Carolina, during a meeting Wednesday praised Oconee County Schools for its "sense of community" and "the teacher’s dedication to the students, the willingness to go above and beyond, and a 'true' open door policy for the voice of the student to be heard."
On each of five measures of quality the system earned ratings between 2.88 and 3.33 out of a possible 4. Those indicators are purpose and direction; governance and leadership; teaching and assessing for learning; resources and support systems; and using results for continuous improvement.
Most systems fall somewhere between 2 and 3 on the scale, Rivenbark explained.
"The scale, being 1 to 4, is a very difficult scale," Superintendent Dr. Jason Branch said following the meeting. "Being in the threes on any of those is exciting."
In preparation for the team's visit, the system was required to conduct a self assessment. Those ratings were actually lower than those of the team at 2.4 to 2.8.
"We did take a real hard look at ourselves," Branch said. "When we saw the word 'all' versus 'some' we asked the question, 'Are we truly all doing this or is 80 percent doing it?' And if it was 80 percent, we didn't say all."
The team identified the following as strengths:
- The visionary leadership and synergy between the Superintendent and administration at all levels has created a strong commitment to sustaining a culture of excellence that pervades the entire district.
- The governing body ensures that school leadership has autonomy to meet goals for achievement and instruction and to manage day-to-day operations effectively.
- The proactive leadership of the superintendent and staff fosters a climate of transparency and a culture consistent with the district’s purpose and direction.
- The district systematically engages families by communicating student progress through an outstanding information infrastructure.
- Oconee County Schools have exceptional facilities and services as a result of providing a safe, clean, and healthy environment for all students and staff.
- Oconee County Schools commendably utilize a vast array of traditional and technological methods of communication so that stakeholders at all levels are afforded the opportunity to be informed about system, school, and student performance.
Two areas of development that require action were noted by the team.
- Develop, implement, and evaluate a strategic plan aligned with the district’s mission and vision which focuses on student success and meets the needs of a changing community.
- Expand training on the collection, analysis, interpretation, and usage of data to all system staff.
The findings alligned with the system's self assessment, according to Branch.
"Certainly one of the things we've identified through our own self assessment is the fact that we need strategic planning as our community grows and changes that ties our goals together," he said. "We're doing a lot of excellent work, but we want to make sure that that work is all streamlined and appropriate for the goals that we set."
Taking everything into consideration, Rivenbark said the team will recommend accreditation.
"It was a great visit," he said. "It was an easy visit for us in a way because it was so well laid out, it was not hard to make the decision that we had to make."
Within about 30 business days, the system will receive a copy of the detailed external review report.
"Our next steps will be to look at the report when it comes back in more detail and make sure we understand everything that's in it, both the positives and the things that we can improve on, and then sit down and create a time line in terms of how we address those items," Branch said.
The accreditation won't be official until the AdvancED Accreditation Commission gives its stamp of approval in June.
In two years, the system must send a written follow-up describing how the required actions are being addressed. Branch said he anticipates action will be taken right away.
"We were already seeing a need to do a strategic planning process, so we feel like we'll begin that pretty soon and involve the community, involve our stakeholders and really start asking the question, 'What do we want Oconee County Schools to be in 3-5 years?'"
He hopes even more community members will participate.
"The more voices we can hear and the more things we can discover, the better our system is going to be because we're meeting the needs of what 33,000 community members are telling us," he said.
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