|Highlands Middle School, part of the Fort Thomas Independent Schools District, which has earned national accreditation with top scores from the Cognia accrediting body.|
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by Robin Gee
Fort Thomas Independent Schools scored a near-perfect score on national accreditation by Cognia, a nongovernmental membership organization that accredits public and private schools. Known for its emphasis on continuous improvement, the organization uses a set of rigorous research-based standards and evidence-based criteria to examine an institution as a whole.
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The district earned an IEQ, or Index of Education Quality, score of 387.42 out of a possible 400 points, a very high achievement considering the average score for schools across the country is between 278.34 and 283.33. Perhaps most impressive was that the district achieved this score in a school year challenged by a pandemic.
"The accreditation that Fort Thomas Independent Schools was able to achieve is incredible, but not surprising. Our teachers, staff and students rose to the challenge — maybe the most challenging year in the history of modern education — to demonstrate why our district continues to excel," said Superintendent Dr. Karen Cheser.
The Cognia accreditation is part of the district’s ongoing continuous improvement efforts. Assistant Superintendent for Teaching & Learning Bill Bradford heads up the district’s continuous improvement work.
"The vast majority of Cognia’s standards for continuous improvement found us to be at the highest level, which is the impacting level, which means we have noteworthy practices, clear results that has positively impacted our district. That was a great finding, something we are very proud of," said Bradford.
"I think we are also very proud of the actual high IEQ score we earned. It’s essentially off the charts, and even the Cognia review team indicated that it was not a score they have ever assigned to an institution. We are very proud of that," he added.
Further, Bradford said the high scores were verfication and validation of the things the district has put in place.
Significant progress over previous accreditation
Bradford explained that districts go through this extensive accreditation or re-accreditation process every four or five years depending on the district’s schedule. Fort Thomas schools were last accredited in 2016. At that time, the district earned an IEQ rating of 308.78.
Since then, the accrediting body went through a rebranding, changing the name from AdvancED to Cognia, but the standards and expectations the organization uses have remained the same.
Since that time, Fort Thomas also welcomed a new leadership team — Dr. Cheser, Bradford and Jamee Flaherty, assistant superintendent for Student Services — who came on board in the 2017-18 school year and who made concerted efforts towards continuous improvement and engagement across the school community.
Having a system-wide analysis that looked at all the district’s efforts over the past five years shows the schools are headed in the right direction, Bradford said.
The district’s strongest areas identified in the Cognia review were its Portrait of a Graduate.
"There was a significant validation of the work that we have put into place, specifically over the course of the last few years. Some of those are specifically related to Portrait of a Graduate and our focus on stakeholder engagement through opportunities for parents, teachers, students and community to have voice in decision making and in consultation," he said.
A big thank you to the school community
Bradford said he was proud to represent the superintendent’s office leadership team during the accreditation process. He also praised his Teaching & Learning teammate, Sally Race, and all the school principals who were true partners in the efforts to get the Cognia team all the data, documentation and material they needed for the review.
While having leadership on board was a key component, he was quick to note that the work of many people across the district were vital to the accreditation process. "There were a lot of people involved... we had parents involved, board members involved, teachers involved, classified staff involved, and we had students involved."
A review like this takes hours of time, effort and research, he said. "It’s very invasive and very intensive... They are examining a wide array of evidence that we had to supply that demonstrated how we are meeting these standards. It was a very time intensive process, but somehow we made it happen this year. A lot of people contributed and made it happen."
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How Cognia determined the score
At a recent school board meeting, Bradford shared a brief outline of the Cognia standards, how achievement is measured, how Fort Thomas did and what the district has learned through the accreditation process.
He outlined a rating process that included levels of achievement in relation to the standards provided. The levels were insufficient (little or no activity toward improvement), initiating (just getting started), improving (quality practices are in place and meeting standards) and impacting (noteworthy efforts that have had a positive impact).
The district was measured against sets of standards and criteria in three core areas — Leadership Capacity, Learning Capacity and Resource Capacity. In each area, the district scored at the impact level with a few at the improvement level.
The Cognia team concluded their report with praise for all involved in the district including educators, parents, leadership and students. They wrote, 'The culture of Fort Thomas Independent Schools reflects an unwavering commitment among all stakeholder groups to serve students and staff in a way that supports their growth and success..."
New goals ahead
The review team went on to encourage the district to use the Portrait of a Graduate, its focus on stakeholder engagement and other efforts already in place to help in continuing on the journey to positively impact learning.
Specifically, the Cognia review team suggested two opportunities for improvement. The first was to consider unifying the instructional framework across all grade levels and across schools.
Bradford explained the goal would be to ensure the district has common expectations for the types of learning experiences all students have across grade levels and content areas. "That could mean project-based learning, inquiry-based learning...expectations for some level of uniformity across classrooms."
The second challenge was for the district to dig deeper into how the Portrait of a Graduate has impacted graduates. The Cognia group challenged the district to find ways to better understand what effect Portrait of a Graduate has had on students as they move to college and career.
This could involve conducting surveys, interviews and other engagements to understand and learn how graduates exposed to Portrait of a Graduate have benefited from it and what the district could do better to prepare graduates for the future, said Bradford.
"We accept both of those next steps as great opportunities," he said. "On behalf of the district, I can say that feedback is certainly relevant and could absolutely propel us to further success, that’s for sure... It really was an opportunity to have outside analysts provide constructive feedback as to where we could go next, where we could continue to grow and be better," Bradford said.
For more information on Cognia accreditation, see accreditation and certification on the Cognia website.