All ACPS schools reach full accreditation for first time in 20 years

All ACPS schools reach full accreditation for first time in 20 years
(Courtesy photo)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

For the first time in 20 years, all of Alexandria’s public schools have been fully accredited, according to an Alexandria City Public Schools news release.

The accreditation results for the 2019-2020 school year, which were released by the Virginia Department of Education on Monday, are an improvement over those of the 2018-2019 school year, in which 14 ACPS schools were fully accredited. This year, all 17 ACPS schools were accredited.

Ninety-two percent of schools across the state were fully accredited for the 2019-2020 school year, according to a VDOE news release. That number remains unchanged from the 2018-2019 school year.

“I’m very hopeful and excited,” Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said. “… We finally have the validation for work we’ve been doing and the progress that we’ve been making and that’s what’s most important to me.”

Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School was accredited for the first time since opening its doors in September 2018. Newly opened schools are never fully accredited. But, for the two schools that were designated accredited with conditions last year – Jefferson-Houston School and T.C. Williams High School – the news was especially welcome.

“It feels deserving because of all the growth we’ve seen in our kids,” Jefferson-Houston Principal MScott Berkowitz said. “That’s the message that they deserve to have, that they attend a fully accredited school that’s going to serve them well.”

T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas said the high school’s full accreditation completely changed the start of the school year for staff.

T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)

“This year was wonderful because we were able to say, ‘Look at this wonderful growth that happened across the board in every subgroup and every subject area,’ and it just gave us such a different energy,” Balas said.

The division-wide improvement comes in the wake of a significant change in the state’s accountability system. The new system, which was introduced last year, evaluates schools based on multiple school quality indicators, as opposed to solely on standards of learning test results, as was previously the case.

The new system evaluates schools based on overall proficiency and growth in specific SOL subject areas, as well as achievement gaps among demographic groups, graduation and completion rates and absenteeism.

Schools are given a performance level rating in each quality indicator. Level one indicates a school is at or above the state standard, level two indicates a school is near or approaching the state standard and level three indicates a school is below the state standard.

(Read more: New system boosts ACPS accreditation)

If a school is at level one or two for all school quality indicators, it earns full accreditation. A school is given accreditation with conditions if one or more quality indicators is at level three.

Last year, schools had the option of being evaluated under the old or new accountability system.

For schools like Jefferson-Houston, which hadn’t been fully accredited for 11 years, the new system is a more comprehensive measure of year-to-year improvement, Berkowitz said.

After receiving an accredited with conditions status for the 2018- 2019 school year, T.C. Williams High School and Jefferson-Houston were both fully accredited for the 2019-2020 school year. (File Photo)

“We want all our students to be proficient, but for that student that has a lot of ground to cover, we also want to acknowledge their success and all that ground that they did cover even if they’re not yet at proficiency,” Berkowitz said.

“This new accreditation system is now giving school divisions credit for making progress, and that’s something that wasn’t captured in the former accreditation system,” Hutchings said.

SOL subject areas remain an important part of the state’s accountability system. However, there’s just as much emphasis on growth as there is on proficiency, Berkowitz said.

Coming out of the 2018-2019 school year, Hutchings and ACPS staff took deliberate steps to address specific, division-wide areas in need of improvement.

“Math was a specific area we need[ed] to have growth across all our schools, as well as special education,” Hutchings said.

ACPS used monthly professional learning gatherings and quarterly data analysis meetings to track progress throughout the year.

(Read more: Longtime Alexandria resident Joe Sestak runs for president)

The division-wide focus on math helped boost Jefferson-Houston to full accreditation status.

Jefferson-Houston students had an overall 11-point increase in math SOL scores, and the growth in specific demographic groups was equally significant.

“What got us over the threshold for accreditation was our black students in math,” Berkowitz said. “Our black students in math last year had a 15-point bump up. We’re really proud of that.”

In order to reverse a three-year downward trend in math SOL scores, staff established daily math interventions for students in need of extra help.

Principal Peter Balas stands on the red carpet at T.C. Williams High School. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

For Balas and his staff at T.C. Williams, growth in math SOL scores was only one of the reasons T.C. was accredited with conditions last year. Graduation and completion rates were also part of the school’s conditional status.

Balas said he and his staff re-evaluated the core processes and procedures used to measure graduation and completion. Balas set up a team that monitors graduation status, withdrawals and completion rates throughout the year.

“We have been strategic when it comes to graduation rate to make sure that the graduation rate that’s happening is accurately reflecting our progress,” Balas said. “…You might have kids on your roll that have withdrawn, gone somewhere else, left the country. We have to account for all those kids who are no longer active in our system.”

The VDOE’s accreditation results have given ACPS staff plenty to celebrate, but their challenge in the coming school year will be maintaining and improving growth.

“Part of the challenge now is not just maintaining those improvements but also increasing them now,” Balas said.

Division-wide, ACPS staff is shifting its focus from math to reading, especially in kindergarten through second grade, Hutchings said. Schools are emphasizing social-emotional learning in order to address individual students’ needs, Berkowitz said, and maintaining emphasis on Hispanic students and students with disabilities.

The accreditation results are just another step in a long history of growth, change and contributions made by those that came before, Hutchings said.

“We wouldn’t be who we are without those contributions, and now it is my job to help take the school division forward and lead us in a way that is going to allow us to be one of the most premier school divisions across the world,” Hutchings said.

(Read more: School board approves one connected high school)