(Almost) Paperless Accreditation

by Thomas Van Soelen 3 Comments April 19, 2011

Planning for accreditation can be an incredibly busy time for any district. Our plates are all full, as the tired saying reminds us, but we needed to collaborate on this extremely important sign and seal of our district work. And as with all things in a school district, working with adults is an excellent opportunity to model best practices that can be replicated in the schoolhouse.

We could have done this planning in traditional face-to face meetings but felt that maybe these meetings wouldn’t have to exist. I’m not sure if your district is like ours, sometimes we have meetings that aren’t as productive as others. Sometimes the preparation work was shortchanged, or there weren’t clear learning targets for the meeting, or the conversation needed to be structured so everyone’s voice would be heard or the assumption did not hold that the right people were in the room discussing the right things…whatever those incongruencies are, we sometimes have them.

I didn’t want accreditation to be one of those times, so I started dreaming about how technology could help in this accreditation visit – just like in teaching reading: before, during, and after.

Selecting the Tool
Our schools have been using a tool called First Class for almost a decade. This tool has e-mail, calendaring, and contacts capabilities as wells as collaborative tools. Alternatively, our administrative staff had been using Outlook that didn’t meet the collaborative needs that we were looking for. So we thought “What if we could write our accreditation report never having met? The tool was available within our First Class suite: a Wiki*. Since there are 7 standards required for the AdvancED district standards, we set up 7 different Wikis, one for each standard.

Creating the Teams
We looked at a flexible grouping of members similarly to how we do for our students – another chance to model what standards-based learning looks like. This time we grouped by learner profile and made each group cross-functional including members from both district and school level and mixing leaders who primarily work with operations with those that work primarily with instruction and student support. We gave each group six weeks to complete their task, thinking that a shorter, more intense timeline might be more productive. The groups collaboratively created their Standards Assessment Report directly in their Wiki documents. As the Accreditation chair, I participated in all seven wikis. Some members were assigned to two wikis due to their job responsibilities but most folks participated in just one.

Some staff members I individually supported by showing them in their offices or at their schools how to participate. Others, chatted me with iChat and they shared screens with me so I could talk and walk them through their first Web 2.0 experience. For the entire group, I used QuickTime Player and made a movie recording of my screen and voice walking them through each step. The short movie was loaded into Vimeo as to now clog their email boxes.

First Catharsis
After the collaborative documents were created in the Wiki, we copied this information into the AdvancED portal and clicked “Submit.” What a feeling! We had done it – on time and with limited whole group meeting time. In fact, we only had one whole group meeting – one month before the accreditation team came to visit. We used a Modified Wagon Wheel protocol for everyone to read the entire report and examine it from a visitor’s perspective. The meeting lasted 65 minutes and was wildly productive and well-received – “That was so efficient.” “I can see how I can use this protocol with my staff.”

Catharsis #2
Although the Standards Assessment Report certainly is a substantial albatross in the accreditation process, collecting the necessary evidence is equally as foreboding. That’s where eBOARD really came in handy! Using eBOARD’s Evaluation module for the first time was quite intuitive and within a week, I had linked to webpages, training videos, Board policies, Board action items, and our burgeoning strategic plan. For items that were not “alive” on the web, simple uploading prevented a situation that, 5 years ago, would have involved countless manila folders with white Avery labels, perhaps in color-coded crates.

Response from the Accreditation Team
Our accreditation chair initially seemed quite nonchalant about not having paper. Over the phone he decided that method should be just fine. However, a few of the other team members requested a few documents in paper, including the Standards Assessment Report. We did what is required: provided each team member with a laptop and printing privileges at the central office and at the hotel, but quickly acquiesced to whatever they needed in order to do their work. However, our point was well made: it became a running byline when several accreditation team members would ask for documents:

“Let me guess: a copy of that is in eBOARD, right?”

So internally we were paperless – that’s success for us. It has inspired us to think more broadly about being paperless. Why do we still create paper files for students when we have a robust student information system (Infinite Campus)? Why are we printing paper agendas for the monthly Superintendent’s staff meeting?

We immediately started using eBOARD in other ways. Saving printing costs is certainly important but the efficiency of employees, that represent the largest expenditure of any school district, is far more important to me. In shifting existing teaching staff to open a new school next year, we used the Meeting module to document those important meetings, decisions, and the most recent Excel document of everyone’s prioritized requests. We are not checking email for the most recent communication – we know where to go and what to do.

So – the end of the story is that we were re-awarded district accreditation for the second time. Another five years to get ready for a visit. I wonder how we might model and use technology in 2016??

*wiki /ˈwikē/
Noun: A Web site developed collaboratively by a community of users, allowing any user to add and edit content.

Categories: Accountability, Cost Savings, eBOARD, Evaluations, Leadership, Meetings, Meetings Management, Paperless, Planning, Strategic Plan, TransparencyTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
3 Comments to “(Almost) Paperless Accreditation”
  1. avatar Mark Willis says:

    Thomas, you and the team at City of Decatur are an inspiration for all of us. Change is not always easy but it is often necessary and in this case you have proven that it is worthwhile. Thank you for being a change agent for the students in City of Decatur and for the adults throughout all of public education!

  2. avatar Chuck Bell says:

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and experience with us, Thomas. We have an upcoming district accreditation visit in October. I will be sharing this article with our Assistant Superintendent. As for 2016, I fully expect an altogether paperless accreditation process.

  3. avatar greg says:

    If anyones going to focus they time on assessment and improvement, they need to do it right. The only way to do that is to make sure everyone’s on the same page and working together. We use collaboration software and the focus has come off of busied work just to get ready for review and onto what really matters. Anyone working towards the advancement of their institution knows it’s an ongoing process. Planning and assessment are intertwined in a circular process best acheived when there is clear direction and teamwork. Different areas have their own goals but allowing everyone to work together in one place is crucial to an institutions sucess. Check out one of those tools more and more schools are using. getting away from paper and pencil is inevitably where we’re headed. One example I like is Strategic Planning Online; Google it. You may just find this is something that takes your headache away like it did for me.

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