The Durham Public Schools got good news on Wednesday from AdvancEd, the accreditation agency in town the past three days to assess the school district’s strengths and weaknesses and to make recommendations for improvement.
Tom Jones, the leader of the AdvancED team of nine reviewers, said all findings are considered preliminary but that the external review is recommending accreditation for DPS to the AdvancED Accreditation Commission.
“I want to get this out of the way,” Jones said early in his presentation. “Durham Public Schools has been and will continue to be an accredited school [district] with AdvancED.”
That news drew applause from Durham Board of Education members and a couple dozen administrators and principals who gathered at the Fuller Administration building to receive the news.
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“I feel like we just got the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” said Superintendent Bert L’Homme.
AdvancED did list four “improvement priorities” for the district, one of which is for DPS to be more consistent in clearly communicating learning expectations to students.
“That would mean an objective being posted on the board from the teacher clearly detailing what we’re learning today and why it’s important,” Jones said.
He said the second component of that improvement priority is the use of formative assessment practices to monitor student learning to inform teachers about what he or she needs to do differently within a class period to ensure that students are meeting standards.
“That might be like asking a probing question,” Jones said.
He said the foundation for the improvement priorities is already in place, but encouraged DPS to make the practice consistent throughout the district.
Other improvement priorities include:
▪ The development of procedures for school leaders to consistently monitor and support improvement in instructional practices that focus on increasing student performance and success, the delivery of equitable and challenging curriculum to all students and authentic student engagement based on students’ needs and interests.
▪ Further development of structures that ensure each student in every school is “well known” by at least one school employee who will support the student’s educational experience.
▪ Collecting, analyzing and acting on data at targeted intervals throughout the school year, centrally and at all schools, to sustain progress, modify classroom instruction and adapt school improvement strategies and supports to ensure excellence and equity for all students.
Jones also urged DPS to “fiercely” protect instructional time as part of a professional recommendation that did not rise to the level of an improvement priority.
“It’s a battle that has to be fought,” Jones said. “It’s like the weeds in your yard, it’s never over. We want you to look at and think about what you might do in order to get us back to a point where everybody is fiercely protecting instructional time.”
AdvancED said DPS’ strengths include its willingness to embrace diversity, improvement in the graduation rate, its array of school choices, student performance on Advance Placement exams, the number of schools exceeding growth expectations, innovative approach to mental health partnerships, strong community support and opportunities to build leadership capacity.
The reviewers also noted challenges facing DPS, including the high rate of teacher turnover, the capacity to address the needs of immigrant and refugee students, the provision of clear and consistent communication with families and other stakeholders and overcoming misconceptions about the school system.
L’Homme said he and DPS are well aware of the need for improvement in the areas identified by AdvancED.
“None of this was a surprise,” L’Homme said. “We know our strengths and we know where we need to improve, and to have the AdvancED team come in and see the same things that we see gave it validation.”
Over the course of three days, AdvancED met with 382 “stakeholders,” including all seven school board members, took part in 99 classroom observations, examined tons of documents and engaged in numerous discussions and deliberations.
This week’s external review of DPS follows a long internal review during which DPS collected performance data, conducted stakeholder interviews and surveyed parents and students about the district’s performance.
The district participates in an external review every five years in order to receive accreditation.
Accreditation certifies that the district has achieved the minimum standards of quality, and is often used as a management tool because it can help identify areas for improvement.
DPS last received accreditation in 2011 when AdvancED required the school district to address a disparity of technology resources across DPS, provide equitable opportunities for teachers of Exceptional Children to participate in professional learning communities, equitably distribute resources and identify and incorporate research-based instructional practices that boost academic achievement and narrow achievement gaps between white children and children of color.