Some of the most powerful and satisfying professional development experiences I have had in over 35 years in education have come as the result of my work with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation process. Whether as a Visiting Committee member, an Assistant Chair, a Chair, or as a Commissioner on the Association's Commission on Independent Schools, I have learned (and adopted) some of the best practices in education and met some of the finest educators in the world.
The NEASC accreditation process aims at continual school improvement through a rigorous and comprehensive self-study and peer review followed by a review and recommendation by a NEASC Commissioner. The whole process, if done well, takes years to complete. It is inclusive, intensive, and insightful; as exhausting as it is exhaustive, the process involves all constituencies in a school community and helps set the school's direction for the next five years. For this reason, NEASC accreditation is the coin of the realm when determining school quality around the world, and I am proud to say that we recently received a letter from the Association's Commission on Independent Schools granting us Continued Accreditation.
The experience of having a third party come in to evaluate whether you are doing all you say you are and all you can or should be doing is uncomfortable even in the best of situations. I, for one, am always asking myself if I was as thorough, as forthcoming, or as articulate as I could be or if I missed something. However, once the Visiting Committee—the one visiting us comprised 15 members—is on campus for their three-day visit, all you can do is wait to see what they say.
In our case, the results were stellar. In fact, one sentence in the Commission's accreditation letter reads, "The Academy is a sterling example for other independent schools and town academies." The Visiting Committee commended us for dozens of things throughout the report, and at the end, focused on 13 Major Commendations—the most Major Commendations I have ever seen in my 16-year experience with the Commission. They commended virtually every aspect of the school: our mission and core values, our approach to the Self-Study process, the dedication of our faculty and staff, our beautiful campus, our comprehensive and diverse programming designed to reach, inspire, and prepare all learners, our emphasis on relationships, our fiscal strength and management, and our supportive Board of Trustees—just to name a few. Many schools receive Major Commendations like these, but few, if any, receive praise for all of these aspects at once.
In addition, five other Major Commendations caught my attention as truly unique to the Academy:
1. Harmony within a diverse community—The Visiting Committee was impressed by the degree to which our students appreciated the diversity or our community, the diverse opportunities available to them, and the extent to which the school supports the growth of every student regardless of background, ability, or interest.
2. Community-wide commitment to the Academy's public purpose—The Visiting Committee noted our open admissions policy, our broad programming, special services, and numerous supports that helps every student to be known, nurtured, and inspired
3. Hilltopper pride and enthusiasm—The Visiting Committee praised the "enormously positive culture and climate" which is combined with an openness and aspiration for future growth
4. Vigilant protection of the Academy's independence—The Visiting Committee was here during a particularly tumultuous time in our defense of independent education and was impressed by how tenacious we are in defending not only our independence, but that of other schools as well
5. Widespread understanding of the Academy's inextricable link to the welfare of the town and the region—The Visiting Committee not only saw how much the Academy's success depended on the health and well-being of the local community, but they also noted how much the Academy is committed to helping the local community stay strong and vibrant socially, culturally, and economically.
These Major Commendations are particularly meaningful to me, not just because they are unique in my experience of NEASC reports, but more importantly because they echo what could otherwise be seen as nice slogans:
- 52 Towns, 24 Countries, 17 States, One Community;
- Love Those the Most Who Need It the Most;
- We Are Hilltoppers;
- A Proud Tradition, A Bright Future;
- We Can Make a World of Difference; and
- Leave This Place Better Than You Found It.
The fact that the Committee saw us living out these messages makes me prouder than anything else. It's easy to pay lip service to platitudes, but when outsiders see you living out your beliefs to such an extent that they make them Major Commendations, that is a degree of community-wide integrity worth celebrating.
The Major Recommendations and the dozens of recommendations sprinkled throughout the report will guide our way into the future. Two of the Major Recommendations deal with overarching initiatives—developing a new version of our strategic plan and moving away from a "narrative of complexity" toward some simple themes as we define our five-year vision. Two others deal with discussions of natural tensions within independent schools—autonomy versus consistency and transparency versus confidentiality. The final Major Recommendation is actually a commendation in disguise—recommending that we build upon the excellent work and abundant opportunities we have to further celebrate diversity and develop a global perspective.
Already Faculty and Staff Focus Groups are working on many of these recommendations and others that arose during the self-study process, and the Trustees have taken up the two dealing with the narrative of complexity and strategic planning. The action plans that come out of these discussions, especially the strategic planning discussion, will undoubtedly involve multiple constituencies in our community, and judging by the impressive work and energy shown during the accreditation process over the past three years, I have no doubt that the results will be impressive as well.
We should all be proud to have received Continued Accreditation by NEASC; to be recognized with 13 Major Commendations is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Looking forward, we are excited to work toward continued improvement based on the recommendations given, and much of this work has already begun. All in all, we have much for which to be thankful, and I am particularly thankful for the support and shared effort demonstrated by all in our community. Congratulations to all!