In the Big Leagues

Feb. 9-15, 2006
In the Big Leagues
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
Eight Schools in the Diocese Granted Middle States Accreditation

Last November, Sister Harriet Hamilton, OSF, principal at St. Mary’s School in Cortland, felt the long journey she and her school had just completed was very gratifying. Sister Harriet had just learned that St. Mary’s was accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

“I was very pleased because it’s a validation of the school and its programs,” said Sister Harriet. “We’ll be nationally recognized. Right now, we’re in the process of adding the name and description of our school to the Middle States website.” Father Charles Vavonese, assistant superintendent of the diocesan Catholic Schools Office, announced recently that eight schools in the diocese have received accreditation by the Middle States Association. The schools are Blessed Sacrament School in Syracuse, Holy Cross School in DeWitt, Holy Family School in Syracuse, Immaculate Conception School in Fayetteville, Our Lady of Lourdes School in Utica, St. Mary’s School in Cortland, St. Mary’s School in Clinton and St. Peter’s School in Utica. “The schools that were accredited were accredited by the same organization that accredits New York universities like Cornell and Le Moyne,” said Father Vavonese. “That’s a pretty neat accomplishment. There are very few elementary schools in this area that carry this distinction. Basically, it’s the result of an expanded effort on our part to strengthen the Catholic school program and to obtain for them affirmation from the educational community. Regional accreditation is a landmark event in the history of any institution.”

The Middle States Association is a non-profit association serving elementary, secondary and higher education institutions through programs of self-study, evaluation and accreditation. They also offer other development services. To support these goals, institutions of higher education within the Middle States region joined together in 1919 to form the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, a professional association devoted to educational improvement through accreditation.

Father Vavonese explained that accreditation is recognition of both prior achievements and a commitment to greater future achievements. The seed for accreditation was planted when Father Vavonese met people from the elementary commission of the Middle States Association at a National Catholic Education Association Convention. Father Vavonese shared with them the experience the schools had had with Catholic School Management, a consulting firm that worked with the schools for three years. “They showed me how we could take the information from Catholic School Management and use it as part of our self-study, add a small other part, and qualify for consideration for the accreditation,” said Father Vavonese.

That’s how the accreditation process began at St. Mary’s. After Richard Burke from Catholic School Management set some goals for the school, St. Mary’s applied for accreditation from the Middle States Association. As part of the application process, representatives from St Mary’s wrote an account of how the school met 12 standards that had been devised by the Middle States Commission. The standards included philosophy, governance and leadership, organizational design and staff, educational programs, learning media services and technology, student services, student life and student activities, facilities, health and safety, finances, assessment of student learning and planning.

In April 2005, a team of three individuals (one of the usual four that is customarily sent was ill and couldn’t attend) from the Middle States Commission visited St. Mary’s and began the process. They met with the school community — parents, students, alumni, and people who were involved in the long-range planning from the very beginning. The group then spent three days observing St. Mary’s operation and then made suggestions as to what they thought might work better. The visiting team then compiled a report and presented it to the Middle States commissioners at their bi-annual meeting. “In November, we learned that the commission had accepted our responses to the standards and we had become accredited for a period of seven years,” said Sister Harriet.

Father Vavonese said that the first set of schools to be accredited was presented last November; another group of schools will be presented in the spring, and then another next November. “All the schools are finding it very affirming,” said Father Vavonese. “A number of them were hesitant to enter the process, but as they went through it, they found it was a great experience. The parents are getting a different sense of the value of Catholic schools. I think it raises the teachers’ evaluation of the work that they do. It’s a great affirmation for teachers.”

St. Patrick’s School in Oneida is in the beginning stage of applying for accreditation. St. Patrick’s is the only school in Madison County that is applying for the honor. Principal Peg Brown believes that being accredited will be beneficial for everyone involved. “I think it makes us more eligible for grants because you have to be accredited in order to receive them,” said Brown. “Plus, it will make our school marketable.” Because the accreditation of a school indicates that it is an institution of trustworthiness and educational quality and that it has a commitment to on-going school improvement, accredited Catholic schools stand out among public elementary schools. “Not many of the public elementary schools in New York State are accredited,” said Father Vavonese. “All of the three schools in Utica are accredited. And because of the consolidation of the schools in Rome, the accreditation process for them will begin next year,” said Father Vavonese.

Principal of Holy Cross School in DeWitt, David Wheeler, was notified that his school had become accredited last November. “I feel very, very happy about it,” remarked Wheeler. “It was a lot of work, but it was well worth it. It has been proven that Holy Cross delivers high quality education in the educational and spiritual realm.” Sally Lisi, principal of Immaculate Conception School in Fayetteville, is excited about the school being accredited. “I really feel that we are academically on top of things,” said Lisi. “Going through the accreditation process has inspired us to see how we can do things better, and it has also made us more aware of what’s going on in our world.”

Father Vavonese said the schools’ accreditation is effective for seven years. After three and one half years, the school is required to submit a mid-point review. Following that, representatives from Middle States Association confer with the school regarding the review. After six years, the school begins to plan for re-accreditation. Father Vavonese also said this process is designed to help the school continue to grow — to be aware of what’s important and to be able to meet new needs and to adjust to them.

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