As part of Cognia’s celebration of its 125th anniversary, contributing editor Shep Ranbom interviewed Will Kesler, head of school at Battle Ground Academy, an independent school which was one of the first members of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the oldest continuously accredited school in the Southern region. Their conversation centered on the school’s continuing focus on doing “all the small things that need to be done that enable big improvement over time.”

South’s oldest continuously accredited school continues to reinvent itself through the Cognia Accreditation process 

Battle Ground Academy is an independent K–12 day school in Franklin, TN, the county seat of prosperous Williamson County. The co-ed, college-prep school draws students from a 30-minute radius in the Middle Tennessee region, which extends from Nashville (20 miles north) to Columbia (30 miles south). The academy serves 850 students, 80 percent of whom are white and 20 percent students of color.

“We’re known for the results we get with all of the students we take,” says Head of School Will Kesler, who has helmed the school for seven years. “Our mission is to ignite and nurture students’ curiosity, intellect, and character. We educate good, hardworking students and get high-end results.” Over each of the last three years, the school has seen 93- to 95-percent pass rates on AP exams, a 27-plus average on ACT, and 90- to 100-percent admission of students to one of their top three college choices.

Battle Ground Academy continues to grow its enrollment, introduce new programs, and evolve. It follows a clear strategic plan developed every five years as part of the process it follows to earn dual accreditation from the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) and Cognia, which leads the accreditation review process.

But at Battle Ground Academy, quality assurance doesn’t happen only for the duration of the accreditation cycle—it happens every day. “The accreditation process holds you accountable for improvement and for having a growth mindset for your organization,” Kesler says. “It forces you to ask: ‘How are we going to improve all aspects of our work to better serve students tomorrow than we are today?’

A note on Cognia’s history:

Celebrating 125 Years as a Force for School Improvement and Societal Change

Cognia traces its origins to 125 years ago, when prominent scholars founded one of our predecessor organizations, the Southern Association of Colleges in Schools.  In the still-rural South that was slowly emerging from the chaos of Reconstruction, SACS introduced a collaborative body to set educational standards, encourage cooperation among institutions, and influence the development of Southern society by improving education.

In 1895, the United States was transforming itself from a rural, agrarian economy to an industrialized urban nation that, in a few short decades after the Civil War, was connected by intercontinental railway that also linked small towns to urban centers. Mass migration and immigration fueled the rise of the metropolis. By the turn of the century, 40 percent of the U.S. population lived in cities. From 1870 to 1920, enrollment in public schools grew 2.5 times, from 7 to 18 million.1 Students stayed in school longer than before, with more students continuing to high school.

Prominent leaders of academia in the South, who had been trained at the best institutions in the United States and Germany, decided to look beyond their academic specialties to consider how to create more scholars and at the same time strengthen schools and colleges in the region. Led by Vanderbilt University Chancellor James Hampton Kirkland, these educators began their work by establishing SACS to create a more systematic way to improve preparation for higher education and create a sense of cooperation, interdependence, and understanding among high schools and colleges. Specifically, they created SACS to:

  • Organize Southern schools and colleges for cooperation and mutual assistance
  • Elevate the standard of scholarship and achieve more uniformity in entrance requirements

Shift preparatory programs from colleges and universities to the public school system

An interesting side note: Battle Ground Academy was founded in 1889 in Franklin, TN—the site of one of the two bloodiest battles of the Civil War—to reinvent the region’s legacy from that of bloodshed and violence to one of men and women prepared with the education and character needed to thrive in a changing world.

The school, which on two occasions early in its history suffered serious fires, has consistently adapted its mission to changing times. Now, Battle Ground Academy is using accreditation to continue to guide its evolution, grow enrollment, introduce new programs, create a common ethos to focus on continuous improvement, and—in the words of its head of school —“do all the small things that need to be done that enable big improvement over time.”


Small changes, big results

The focus on “growth mindset” and “continuous improvement” is ingrained in Kesler’s leadership style, which has been influenced by the Japanese organizational improvement principle known as kaizen. Adapted from supply-chain management in the Japanese automobile industry, kaizen essentially entails identifying the small changes that people can make every day and apply over and over again across a campus. By making small changes in everything from personnel to student support, instruction, policy, and the learning program on a daily and weekly basis, we set the stage for big results, Kesler says.

Some of these small changes Kesler has implemented have come directly from serving on accreditation teams. Over the past several years, Kesler has participated as a member or leader of SAIS and Cognia review teams for other schools in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. From each review, he says, he has brought back small changes to improve everything from how the school communicates about financial aid and sets policy to transforming the management of the school’s athletic program.

“The accreditation process holds you accountable for improvement and for having a growth mindset for your organization,” Kesler says.

“From a review team visit, I saw how you could change the function of the athletic director to make powerful changes in the athletic program and its culture,” Kesler says. “I watched how one athletic director had shifted his role from being a manager responsible for equipment, logistics, and assigning bus schedules to operate more like a department chair who regularly watched practices, informed and mentored coaches, and provided regular feedback and supported the coaches by investing in leadership training for them.” The approach, he says, led him to hire an athletic director who sought to bring growth mindset to the entire program for students, athletes, and coaches.

When Kesler arrived at BGA seven years ago, the school was scheduled to start its accreditation process immediately. He received permission to wait a year until he was steeped in the operations of the school. He used the time and preparation process to rethink the mission, vision, and value, and develop a master strategic plan. Further, BGA leaders needed to respond to changes in the community and student body.

Today, residents of the region are as likely to come from California, New York, and Chicago as from other parts of the South. And Franklin is known less for its battlefields these days than for being home to musicians, technicians, and managers from the country music industry; or professionals from the corporate headquarters of Nissan North America, Mitsubishi Motors, Mars Petcare, and Hardees. So, faculty and staff were working on a plan to introduce the first entrepreneurial leadership program in the United States, to begin in fifth grade. As part of the program, students would earn a certificate in entrepreneurial leadership by completing three credits in high school followed by a capstone project during their senior year.

The accreditation process helped the school think through every aspect of implementation for the new program. “What we learned was crucial for our programs’ success,” Kesler says. “The review team suggested that we introduce the program vertically to provide students with a common language, become acquainted with key themes, and have a chance to experience aspects of a capstone project in the lower and middle school.” The team also suggested introducing entrepreneurial-type presentations across disciplines. “Teachers in history, English, and science are using rubrics for group work and presentations that were more robust in the entrepreneurial leadership program than in their courses,” says Kesler.

As a result of implementing these changes, BGA is creating more opportunity for teachers to work across disciplines and has helped ensure that the entrepreneurial program is not simply an add-on to the curriculum but integrated through the school. To further develop the program, the school is now working to better connect student entrepreneurial leaders with the community of entrepreneurs who have flocked to the region.

Battle Ground Academy continues to respond to aspects of the accreditation process. Accreditation is more than just a yes or no vote on the overall quality of a school, because there’s great value in the recommendations and commendations, Kessler says.

Accreditation is more than just a yes or no vote on the overall quality of a school, because there’s great value in the recommendations and commendations, Kessler says.

“In the 2016 review, the accreditation team reminded us that we need to intentionally grow and promote the faculty and put them at the center of academics, improvement efforts, and how we are governed.” We’ve focused on making sure faculty voice is solicited and listened to, and that there are continuous opportunities for collaboration and professional development.

Because as they are based on data and significant feedback from students, faculty, parents, and the board, the recommendations also help get buy-in across stakeholders. This process means, in Kesler’s words, “this is what you’ve all agreed needs to happen and this how we can do it.”

“Cognia helps us ensure that what we do is in data. The changes are not just something in the mind of the head of school but have to be oriented to specific actions as part of the daily execution of faculty and staff,” Kesler says. “The Cognia process puts everyone in our high-performing school on notice about what’s important and helps establish a culture of improvement and a common language for how you view quality, with a roadmap of how to get better.”

The Cognia Accreditation process challenges institutions to improve no matter where they are in their improvement journey. Even high-performing schools can find areas for improvement and benefit from the third-party evaluation process that challenges or validates assumptions and makes recommendations based on standards, observation, and actionable data—to determine whether institutions are in fact honoring their commitment to continuous improvement for all.

Sheppard Ranbom
Sheppard Ranbom is contributing editor of The Source. He is an award-winning education writer whose work has appeared in numerous education trade publications, daily newspapers, and magazines, and is the author or editor of dozens of definitive reports on education. For the past 24 years, he has been president of the Washington, DC-based education public affairs firm CommunicationWorks, LLC.