AdvancED presents findings, recommends accreditation for Demopolis

After months of preparation, Demopolis City Schools educators and board members heard exactly what they wanted Wednesday when the AdvancED external review team recommended the school for accreditation.

Serving more than 32,000 schools nationwide, AdvancED sent an evaluation team to Demopolis this week headed by lead evaluator Mary Anne Hipp of Louisiana.

“This visit is just three and a half days long, but what you do is an eternity,” Hipp said. “So I really thank you for what you’ve done and what you’re doing has helped us to be able to have a clear vision of where you are and where you can be.”

As Hipp prepared to provide a presentation to the capacity crowd in the DCS board room, Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff addressed the system employees in attendance.

“I want to thank you for the work you’ve done, more than what you’ve done recently but also for the work you’ve done in the last five years since our lost accreditation visit,” Kallhoff said.

Hipp began by introducing the five-member team, which included Charlotte Ogelsby, a retired employee of the Perry County system, associate lead evaluator Penny Christian of the Perry County school system, Dolores Oliver Calloway, a retired district level administrator from south Florida and Barry Wood, an administrator in the Covington County system.

Prior to Wednesday’s special called meeting, the AdvacnED team presented its findings to Demopolis City Schools leadership.

“That is the forum where we can chat, we can explain, they can ask clarifying questions,” Hipp said. “Needless to say, we want to have that earlier discussion so that when we leave, it’s really clear what those next steps are.”

Hipp began by praising DCS employees for the work they put in to lead into the evaluation process before outlining the three domains the team evaluated.

“The whole team felt you front-loaded this whole process by being very collaborative. That is how you build leadership,” Hipp said.

The AdvancED team met with 128 Demopolis City Schools stakeholders Monday to ignite its evaluation process as it focused on ascertaining the system’s standing in terms of teaching and learning impact, leadership capacity and resource utilization.

Over the course of the presentation, Hipp highlighted aspects of system performance the team termed either a powerful practice, an opportunity for improvement or an improvement priority. Aspects considered a powerful practice are viewed to be areas of excellence already in existence within the school system. An opportunity for improvement is viewed as an aspect the system should improve but that is not required to address. An improvement priority is an aspect that must be improved upon promptly with system administrators required to report back to AdvancED within two years of the time of evaluation.

Teaching and Learning Impact 

In the domain of teaching and learning impact, the AdvancED team applauded Demopolis schools for the engagement level of its stakeholders. Dubbing it a powerful practice, the evaluation team reported, “Demopolis City Schools engages stakeholders and families in meaningful ways in their children’s education and keeps them informed of their children’s progress.”

The team also saw an opportunity for improvement within the domain of teaching and learning impact. The team recommended that DCS should “create, implement, and evaluate a professional development plan to assist educators in maximizing student engagement, academic rigor, and achievement for all students.”

“We didn’t see student engagement to the level we had wished,” Hipp said.

Most notably, the evaluation team found one improvement priority within the domain of teaching and learning impact.

The team reported that DCS must “develop, implement, and evaluate a comprehensive process for curriculum alignment, student assessment, and data inquiry which is inclusive of professional development in the areas of instructional strategies and in the interpretation and use of data in alignment with the mission and vision of the system.”

““An increase in rigor with what we’re doing in the classroom. Our standards have changed in Alabama. The 2010 standards are gone and now we’ve moved to more of a Common Core related standards. We need to make sure our teaching practices are lining up with that,” Kallhoff said. “That was a very loaded standard. Other parts of that are student engagement. Are the students engaged? They mentioned the eleot (Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool) tool they used. All that does is measure student engagement. They don’t look at teacher behaviors. When they go in with that tool, they’re just simply watching students and it’s all about ‘are they engaged in the lesson’. That was key and the other one that was a part of that loaded standard was aligning assessments with the standards. Making sure that, as a teacher, when I give a 10-question test that the verbiage is lined up with the standard. Is it at the rigor level? If the standard is asking for something to be analyzed and my test is simply asking for something to be recalled, that’s that rigor gap.”

The evaluation team reached its conclusions within the domain by conducting 50 classroom observations across the four Demopolis City Schools campuses and applying the appropriate data to AdvancED’s own metric, eleot, which measures student engagement.

“We feel that we saw absolutely wonderful pockets of excellence, things that we will never forget. But of those 50 observations, when we averaged our numbers for each of those environments, those are the averages that came out of that point,” Hipp said. “The beauty of this is that if you had done those two improvement priorities at a different level, those results would have been quite different.”

AdvancED’s metric focus on seven areas within the domain of teaching and learning impact. The measure looks at a learning environment in terms of equitable learning, high expectations, supportive learning, active learning, progress monitoring and feedback, well-managed learning and digital learning.

Demopolis scored lower than the 2015 average of AdvancED Network schools in all seven categories according to eleot.

“We have other ways of measuring rigor gaps. If we close the rigor gap, if we get better at differentiating those students that have special needs and make sure those gaps are closing, and we make sure our assessments are aligned,” Kallhoff said. “I think we’ll be okay with that. And the other part of that is professional development. The principals can’t go to a teacher and say, ‘Close the rigor gap starting next week.’ That’s not going to work. They want to do it. We need to make sure part of our job and the board’s job is that we give them all the tools necessary to close that rigor gap.”

Hipp offered a caveat to the evaluation team’s findings as she noted the brevity with which the current school administration has been in place.

“We are in a unique situation here. Your present superintendent has only been here since August,” Hipp said. “We think he may have done as much here in seven months as most people have done in seven years.”

As the system moves forward, alterations to the professional development paradigm for teachers will be central to closing the rigor gap and meeting the standard presented by AdvancED.

“Going into this AdvancED’s process, we knew up front what we were going to find and what we were going to see. Creating that calendar was part of that. There’s embedded days in our calendar where we can do that,” Kallhoff said. “I’m a true believer in professional development. It’s nice to go somewhere and learn something, but the best impact on students is to bring it into that classroom and let me work side by side with you, with your students and show you what this looks like. We can send teachers and learn about this best practice that works well with this other teacher’s group of students, but how will that work with your students? So when we get into professional development and we have a professional development plan that’s based on our weaknesses and our deficiencies, we want to make sure it’s embedded, that we’re doing it in the classroom. That goes with modeling, with side-by-side coaching, with follow-up; not sending them somewhere but bringing it to them with their students.”

Leadership Capacity

The evaluation team presented only one finding in the area of leadership capacity as it provided a kudos to the Demopolis City Schools Board of Education.

“Demopolis City Schools Board of Education ensures that the leadership at all levels has the autonomy to meet goals for achievement and instruction and to manage day-to-day operations effectively,” the team noted of what it called a powerful practice.

“You five people have a clear understanding of where the line is drawn in the sand,” Hipp said of the board.

Resource Utilization

Within the domain of resource utilization, the team highlighted the system’s second and final improvement priority.

“I find that when we look at standard four, there’s a sense of urgency,” Hipp said as she readied to present the improvement priority.

“Design, execute, and monitor a long-term strategic plan in alignment with the purpose and direction of the system that prioritizes resource management to ensure that instructional time, personnel, materials and fiscal resources are sufficient to support educational programs and system operations,” the team said of the responsibility that faces the Demopolis system.

“It’s about finance and it’s about a negative fund balance. This is not the first year. We’ve had one for either three or four years. There’s ways to fix that. And she mentioned that your resources aren’t going to change. You’re going to continue to get the same, but the board and I have to be very creative in how we manage and how we send our resources out,” Kallhoff said. “One way to fix that is to increase your student base. More students, more funds. We did that this year. The funding number, I think, was 61 more students this year than last year. So we’ll see more teacher units coming in, but instead of hiring more teachers, we’re going to have less locally-funded teacher units. That’s a big chunk of your budget, 80 percent, is in personnel. When we have 15 locally-funded units, which is a lot, we need to shave that down. As we had the discussion this morning, you don’t do that overnight. It took you four or five years to get this way, it’s going to take you four or five years to turn this around. Every year, little by little, we need to make sure we’re maximizing the resources we have and not picking up additional expenditures by doing it.”

Hipp noted that the system’s expenditures and resource management must match up with its plan.

“We looked at your current strategic plan and it is one of the best written strategic plans, but it’s what is not written. There were missing components to that five-year plan. It didn’t say who was responsible for carrying those things out. And we had no evidence that the board was informed during that five-year plan,” Hipp said. “If you take everything that you’ve been working on and you create that strategic plan and feel that urgency, I think you’re really headed on a very, very successful pathway.”

Index of Education Quality

The team’s presentation then moved to its Index of Education Quality (IEQ) scores. Demopolis garnered an overall score of 272.68, a number that is approaching the AdvancED Network average of 278.34. Demopolis scored a 260 in Teaching and Learning Impact as compared to 268.94 within the AdvancED Network. Leadership Capacity saw Demopolis score a 290.00, a number just shy of the 292.64 national average. Under the domain of Resource Utilization, Demopolis scored a 280.00 as compared to the AdvancED average of 283.86.

“As a team, we’re saying you’re in a great place and you’re ready to move forward,” Hipp said.

“The IEQ results indicate that the school system is performing within acceptable ranges as compared to expected criteria as well as other institutions in the AdvancED Network,” the team indicated. “The External Review Team recommends to the AdvancED Accreditation Commission that the Demopolis City Schools earn the distinction of accreditation by AdvancED.”

“I was pleased with the overall rating. I wasn’t sure how that worked. I was really pleased with that. As I said coming into Demopolis, immediately, I wanted to be better than average and then, down the road, I wanted us to be top 10 in the state,” Kallhoff said. “So to see how close we were, not just in the state but out of 32,000 schools that they do this with, that we’re right there on average, I was pleased with that.”

As she closed, Hipp focused on what she believes will be a bright future for Demopolis City Schools.

“Demopolis has been such a good place for us to be and we kind of don’t want to leave. The support and the professionalism, I can’t say enough about my personal experience up front before we ever got here. It has just been a seamless operation because of the communication,” Hipp said. “Our team respects and acknowledges that you are seriously dedicated to improving the quality of your institution.”

“It all trickles up to what we constantly preach: when you leave Demopolis, we want you to be marketable,” Kallhoff said. “Whether its employers or colleges or even the military, they’re looking for problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, decision makers. It all lines up, we’ve just got to make sure our curriculum lines up with that as well.”