BROOKSVILLE — The announcement prompted rejoicing over red velvet cake to the sounds of Kool and the Gang's Celebration.
After four years of work, the Hernando School Board learned on Wednesday that the district will be recommended for accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement.
"You are a quality school district," Mike Bryans, chairman of an eight-member quality review team, told the board in front of a packed chamber before the cake came out and the music started.
Up to now, each of the district's 22 schools sought accreditation individually. The results of this recent review mean that the district and its schools are working as a cohesive whole toward seven key standards, Bryans said.
Namely: Does the school have a clear vision — and the curriculum — to achieve academic excellence? Are the School Board and staff leaders effective and communicating well with parents and other stakeholders? Is the district using testing results and other testing data to improve student performance? And is there a plan in place to ensure continuous progress?
To answer those questions, the SACS review team — composed of current and former high-level staffers in districts throughout the Southeast — arrived Monday to interview interim superintendent Sonya Jackson and staffers across all departments in the district office. The team then headed to eight schools, talking to principals, teachers, parents and students.
Team members visited 86 classrooms and talked to 426 "stakeholders," including School Board members, Bryans said. Even before their arrival, team members had already combed through a pile of so-called artifacts such as the district's strategic plan and each school's improvement plan.
The findings were overwhelmingly positive, Bryans told the board in front of an audience of district administrators, faculty members and staffers, as well as other community members who had gathered in the board chambers to hear the exit report.
The team found a school district committed to technology and proactive in its school construction planning to meet student capacity needs, Bryans said. The district has shown prudence in managing a tight budget and is clearly using a data-driven approach to improve performance, he said.
Facilities and grounds were clean and safe, staffers showed a high level of morale, and students are clearly happy, he said.
"Regardless of where they attended school, that's where they wanted to be," Bryans said. "They felt the pride of being there and the ownership. Certainly it was their safe haven."
"You can't just make it happen for a group of visitors," he said of the findings. "Teachers were teaching, and students were engaged in learning activities, and that is what's supposed to be happening."
A few areas need work, Bryans said.
The district needs to revise its strategic plan to make sure the plan works in a way "that will inspire and drive the district improvement goals and efforts," according to the findings report.
The School Board needs to have more team-building and training opportunities, the report said. And a system is needed to evaluate new programs to make sure they're effective.
The district must submit a report to SACS to show progress toward those goals and host a review team every five years.
As she munched on cake, Jackson said she felt confident the district would earn accreditation but wasn't sure how extensive the recommendations would be.
"I had a sense of relief," she said. "Those are things we're already working toward."
"I think today we found out this school system is a lot better than what a lot of people feel it is when you read the newspaper or watch the television news," Chairman Pat Fagan said. "We have a wonderful family, and we need to appreciate what we have more than we have in the past."
SACS CASI is a nonprofit, voluntary, nongovernmental association, and one of six regional accrediting associations in the United States. SACS CASI serves 11 Southern states.
The push for districtwide accreditation began four years ago, during the tenure of former superintendent Wendy Tellone, and continued under her successor, Wayne Alexander, said Eric Williams, the district's grant writer, who helped coordinate accreditation efforts. A team of district staffers met three times last year to do a self-assessment to prepare for this week's evaluation.
Seeking accreditation for the entire district saves time and money, Williams said. But the process also helps ensure that the quality of education at all the schools is consistent, he said. And the SACS standards can act as a framework to help the district meet state and federal academic performance mandates, he said.
"I think if we align all of these systems of accountability under the seven standards, we could be a lot more efficient in meeting those requirements."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.