A high-performing school district not only meets standards within its state but also strives to go beyond those achievements. The data collection and analysis integral to Cognia’s accreditation process enables district leaders to understand their institution’s current level of effectiveness but also how to map out a path to improvement and innovation.
I have been superintendent of Liberty Public Schools (LPS) in Missouri since 2014. The district has consistently met the standards set by the Missouri school improvement program, the state’s accountability and accreditation system. That system offers a certain level of rigor; every few years, the state reshuffles the deck and emphasizes different standards that they want to ensure districts are meeting. We relied on that state-level accountability structure, but it did not really broaden the scope of our work.
In recent years, LPS has focused on developing our culture, including our dedication to innovation. In 2019, we started thinking about resetting our strategic plan so that it was a little more agile, flexible, and innovative. We determined that the best way to achieve this goal would involve using the data uncovered during the Cognia Accreditation Process.
The data that we have obtained from the accreditation process has been one of the most powerful overall benefits for our district. Cognia’s Engagement Review Team gathered information about our approach to education in three ways:
- Classroom walkthroughs
- Focus groups with district leaders, building level leadership teams, elementary and middle school students, and parents
- Parent, staff, and student surveys
We culled through all the collected data – whether it was open-ended comments or the ratings of our evaluators. The resulting insights contributed to the development of our strategic plan, or more specifically, the two documents that guided its creation: our graduate profile and Vivid Vision guide.
The graduate profile outlines the skills and dispositions that we believe should be instilled in LPS students to ensure their lifelong success. It states that all students should be able to do the following:
- Apply skills attained from literacy, mathematics, humanities, sciences, technology, the arts and physical education across a variety of contexts in meaningful ways.
- Interact, work, and develop authentic relationships with people from diverse cultural backgrounds with respect for all unique beliefs, customs, and perspectives.
- Cultivate a deep understanding of self and the ability to leverage strengths while recognizing and addressing areas of needed growth.
- Engage and contribute to a work environment in a professional manner, equipped with necessary skills to succeed.
- Recognize opportunities for success while applying divergent thinking and inclination toward action to their work.
The Vivid Vision document presents the district’s vision of “a future where learning is personalized to meet the academic and social emotional needs of all learners, while ensuring their aspirations are within reach.”
We did that work just before the pandemic hit, and we rolled it out during the pandemic. District leaders had discussed tapping the brakes because of the disruptions, but we decided to keep advancing the work on our strategic plan. Also, we were due for an accreditation review by Cognia in 2021. We decided to stay the course with that review as well so that we could see how we were doing academically in general and with Cognia’s standards and domains in particular, even amidst the pandemic.
But I will admit that it was a challenge to create the documents and adjust to Cognia’s accreditation process during that period. The credit goes entirely to our district team for structuring the work, organizing it, gathering all the information, and leveraging technology to get it all done. They did a phenomenal job juggling their regular responsibilities with that extra work, all during a pandemic.
Our most recent review process has been especially gratifying because we heard that people within LPS repeatedly referenced the Graduate Profile and Vivid Vision guide. I believe they see themselves in the work. They also recognize that the skills and dispositions that are identified in the graduate profile equip students to be successful in whatever they pursue in life.
Additionally, the 2021 accreditation review found that LPS had succeeded in fully meeting 10 of Cognia’s 12 standards for an effective learning culture. Also, the district is implementing quality practices that were effectively meeting improvement priorities for the other two standards.
Students have taken more agency in their learning. They now have a deeper understanding of where they are in their education and what learning looks like…they are also beginning to establish goals and self-direct their experience.
Consequently, LPS students have taken more agency in their learning. They now have a deeper understanding of where they are in their education and what learning looks like. They are comfortable with failure, but they are also beginning to establish goals and self-direct their experience. Teachers are not just imparting knowledge to a class. Instead, they come alongside a student that has specific struggles or interests to either support them, get them up to speed, or accelerate their learning. That growth in student agency is probably the biggest impact that we have seen in our system.
Those factors helped us to effectively adjust course during the pandemic and school lockdowns. A select number of students throughout the district were impacted by the transitional instructional approaches our teachers had implemented over the past few years. As a result, student engagement and academic performance suffered. But thanks to the processes and programs that LPS has put in place, we were able to address student needs.
Consequently, LPS did not see significant decreases in student achievement. For example, the proportion of students scoring as proficient or advanced on Missouri’s English language test declined by only 3.5 percentage points, from 62.9% in 2018 to 59.4% in 2021.
Cognia has effectively increased our area of focus beyond our state accreditation system. We have been able to work on areas that could be considered more forward thinking, which fits with the innovative nature of our schools and our culture. As a result, our two-year strategic plan reset has been a success, and our district’s board of education formally adopted the updated plan in the fall of 2021.
Moving forward, LPS leaders are continuing to explore what skills and dispositions a student needs to be successful, whether it’s in high school, college, a career, or in general life. We’re considering the development of a system that gives students real-world learning experiences, like an internship, and that we can credential or badge. We would record that experience on an extended transcript or some other documentation that a student could incorporate into a resume. My hope is that the next time we go through a Cognia evaluation, we’ll be able share the fruits of that work.
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