TSS Earns Cognia Accreditation

Students in class at The Sycamore School that just earned Cognia Accreditation.

“Is your school accredited?”

Since opening The Sycamore School, that has been one of the most common questions. Answering that seemingly simple question was not easy and required some explanation. Schools can only apply for accreditation after they have been open for at least three years; some accreditation organizations require five years. As soon as we could, we started the accreditation process. We had a successful pre-accreditation visit in August of 2019 and had our accreditation visit scheduled for spring of 2020 when COVID hit. Our visit was re-scheduled for the fall of 2020 and then pushed back to April of 2021. It has been a long two years of hurry up and wait, but I can now proudly say, “Yes, The Sycamore School is fully accredited!”

What does Accreditation Mean?

Accreditation agencies ensure that educational institutions are providing quality education to students and a positive experience for their families. The state of Virginia licenses all public schools and private schools that exclusively serve students with special needs. However, there is no state licensing process for independent private schools. Therefore, accreditation is the only formal process that evaluates an independent school’s quality by meeting specific standards.

The Accreditation Process

There are numerous accreditation agencies available to schools. After reviewing the options, the TSS board elected to use Cognia for our accreditation process. Locally, schools such as Congressional School, Bishop O’Connell High School, and Pinecrest School are all accredited through Cognia.

I had been through both the accreditation and licensing process when working in other schools, but this was my first time going through the process with Cognia. “Using a set of rigorous research-based standards, the Cognia Accreditation Process examines the whole institution – the program, the cultural context, and the community of stakeholders – to determine how well the parts work together to meet the needs of the learners.” (TSS Cognia School Accreditation Engagement Review 2021)

Cognia’s focus on the whole school and on the individual learner is refreshingly different. They focus on whether you’re doing what you say you’re doing. They want you to identify goals and areas of improvement, create a comprehensive improvement plan, and then demonstrate that you have worked on those areas. The whole Cognia accreditation process was an opportunity for us to recognize all the work we had done in the past four years and what we wanted to achieve moving forward.

With accreditation, it’s all about the preparation. You need to have policies and procedures in place in order to move forward with accreditation. You also must have been open long enough to produce data demonstrating progress in targeted areas. 

Cognia has three broad standard areas that they assess: 

  • Leadership Capacity
  • Learning Capacity
  • Resource Capacity

In preparation for our performance review, we had to address and provide evidence for each of the three standards and eight to twelve specific areas within each standard. Examples of our evidence included documents such as our Parent & Student Handbook, Staff Handbook, Graduation Requirements Handbook, Continuous Improvement Plan, and our Emergency Procedures Plan. We also shared a range of professional development presentations, staff trainings, parent workshops, student workshops, community events, and a description of our competencies. We included specific data such as parent, student, and staff surveys, classroom observations, competency rating scales, and narrative feedback.

Cognia’s Accreditation Visit

After many delays related to the COVID pandemic, we were finally able to have our accreditation visit (via ZOOM) this spring.  During the visit, the accreditation committee met with me, my admin team, our board, parents, students, and community members who had interacted with TSS. They asked thoughtful questions about the mission of the school and how well the school was living up to that mission. It was a long couple days of ZOOM calls for our community, but we could not be happier with the results.

Accreditation Performance Results

Cognia provides an Index of Education Quality (IEQ) to schools as a means of assessing their overall performance. TSS is proud that our Institution IEQ placed us in the highest tier and identifies the school as being “engaged in practices that are sustained over time and are becoming ingrained in the culture of the institution.” (TSS Cognia Review 2021)

In the performance review, Cognia evaluators said, Deeply embedded within the fabric of The Sycamore School, the collegial, family environment was not only documented in a variety of ways but also reiterated by members of all stakeholder groups. From the school’s website, the leadership team’s overview presentation, and focus group interviews, the theme of “Helping students find their place… in the classroom, in the community, in the world” was reiterated in verbal and written words, non-verbal cues, and reviewed documents.”

It was gratifying to hear that regardless of who they spoke with, TSS’s mission and vision were clearly articulated and understood. 

Regarding leadership, the evaluation team said, “The Board of Directors, Head of School, and leadership team have established an environment of visionary, consistent, and transparent leadership…School leaders, with input and communication from all stakeholder groups, guide the organization’s long-range planning process and support the mission and direction.”

Regarding learning, “TSS embodies an academic environment of equitable opportunities for all students, curriculum developed by TSS leaders and staff, and an experiential learning approach…The culture of meeting high academic expectations, of ensuring creative and innovative instruction, and of meeting the needs of the whole-child is foundational at TSS.”

Regarding resources, “All students and staff have laptops; students have access to adaptive technologies, such as voice-to-text. The school uses My Learning Collaborative (myLC), which is a warehouse for collecting student work, professional development opportunities and evaluation information for teachers, and assessments of student work.”

It is reassuring to know that Cognia, an accrediting organization that has been around for 125 years, has standards that are flexible enough to embrace a wide range of schools and teaching philosophies. At TSS, we embrace a mastery-based learning model, where learning is individualized, engaging, and self-paced. Progress is determined based on the mastery of skills. We don’t give traditional grades on assignments or on report cards. Instead, we provide students with narrative feedback and explain where they are on the path to mastery with specific identified goals. The goal is for students to master skills versus teaching to a test or churning out work for a grade. The intent is that students learn how to learn; they recognize their own learning style, how they learn best and are able to self-advocate and drive their own learning. The hope is that learning can be challenging without being stressful. 

Cognia’s closing statement regarding TSS: 

“In conclusion, The Sycamore School, established in 2017, provides students an environment of comfort, respect, and acceptance. TSS is to be commended for its commitment to the mission and vision, the visionary leadership, unwavering focus on students, the commitment of all stakeholder groups, and transparency in identifying not only the successes but also the challenges of the school. The quest for an embedded culture of welcoming and acceptance, sustained academic excellence, and the commitment to the continuous improvement journey are visionary and progressive goals for the school. The team wholeheartedly commends TSS for its commitment to all students and for “Helping students find their place… in the classroom, in the community, in the world.”

Next Steps

As we approach our first year as a fully accredited institution, we are deciding what to prioritize as we move forward. While the Cognia report was highly complimentary of TSS, there are some areas of identified improvement. We emphasize to students and families that learning is a process. We may have successfully completed our initial accreditation, but there is always room for improvement. Last year with COVID, our theme was flexibility. This coming year, our staff will pick a new theme and look at ways we can expand on our solid foundation. 

But there is one big change. Now when prospective parents ask, “Is your school accredited?” I can answer with a simple yes! 

If you want to learn more about TSS and our unique way of teaching and fostering learning, sign up to view our virtual information session today!

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