School scores seven-year WASC accreditation, recommendations for change

Jacqueline Chao
Head of school Lee Thomsen sits with the 2004 CAIS/WASC report binder containing that year’s recommendations from the evaluation team and other comments about the school.

Having earned a seven-year accreditation, the school is working on the six major recommendations of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS).

After a team from WASC and CAIS visited March 13-15, the school received the accreditation in late April along with the visiting team’s report.

The primary recommendations include undertaking a “comprehensive” strategic planning process; undertaking an internal and external marketing effort; creating a professional development plan for faculty and administration; and establishing “clear, transparent and constructive communication” among the Board of Trustees, administration and faculty.

None of these recommendations caught the faculty off guard, according to head of school Lee Thomsen.

“What’s interesting about this process is if you do well as a school, nothing that comes up in the major recommendations will be a surprise because you’ve identified them already in the self-study,” Thomsen said.

The self-study, an evaluation that was started in August and completed on Dec. 1, allowed Country Day to reflect on its strengths and weaknesses.

The visiting team read the report before visiting the school to make an assessment.

Thomsen and assistant head of school Tucker Foehl agreed that the most obvious recommendation to tackle is undertaking a strategic planning process.

The Board of Trustees and different constituents of the school (the administration, the faculty and some parents and alumni) will begin creating a five-year strategic plan for the school in August.

Francis Zhang (father of sophomore Allison) will chair the strategic planning committee.

The plan will cover a number of elements, including school programs, finances and new buildings.

“It’s a 30,000-foot view of the school,” Thomsen said. “It’s a big umbrella (type of plan).”

Country Day’s previous strategic plan is expiring this year, according to Thomsen.

In addition to a strategic plan, the school must submit an action plan to CAIS by Dec. 1 as a response to the report. Though the action plan is separate from the strategic plan – one for CAIS and one for the school, respectively – Foehl said that much of the content will be the same.

“These will both be big topics when we come back to school in the fall as they coincide,” Foehl said.

“We aim to submit our action plan and finish our strategic plan at about the same time.”

In addition to beginning strategic planning, the school is already working on marketing, another of the recommendations.

A firm in Folsom, Connor Associates, has been retained to “conduct enrollment feasibility and five-year forecasting research” for Country Day, according to the firm’s website.

Thomsen said this means Connor Associates is gathering demographic data about households within a 35-mile radius of the school to identify potential marketing targets: families with school-aged children.

“This will impact where we will put our (marketing) resources to achieve our goals,” Thomsen said.

More resources will also be allocated to professional development, another recommendation.

The former curriculum committee has evolved into the teaching and learning committee to be more focused on professional development, Foehl said.

He added that the committee is to become a “resource for teaching and learning,” promoting both all-school and divisional professional development through “opt-in workshops” on subjects like “formative assessments, differentiated instruction and student-centered learning.”

Many faculty have also applied for grants to work in June on a wide range of topics on campus, and “pretty much all” of those who applied received a grant, Foehl said.

For example, the lower-school reading program will be getting a new look this June. And Joanne Melinson, middle- and high-school librarian, will meet with incoming teachers William Crabb and Damany Fisher to “scope and sequence research in the middle and high school,” according to Melinson.

“With so many teachers leaving, we have some holes in the curriculum, and a lot of the research curriculum comes from the history teachers,” she said.

“We’ve done many projects in the past, but it’s nice to tweak them a bit, have a different end product.”

These new collaborations between departments address another of the visiting team’s recommendations: creating transparent communication among the Board of Trustees, administration and faculty.

“We started doing this last summer when (Thomsen) arrived,” Foehl said. “He was charged by the Board to look at communication across campus. The visiting committee recognized this from our self-study and also in their own conversations with members of our community.”

When WASC and CAIS return in the fall of 2020, the halfway point of the accreditation, for a one-day mid-year visit, they will look for these improvements.

“They want to see that we’re addressing the action items (recommendations) and making the appropriate progress,” Foehl said.

Thomsen added that the school is expected in the accreditation process to respond to all of the recommendations.

“They’re looking for evidence that the school is responding,” he said. “In a worst-case scenario, if a school ignored all recommendations and took no action, I suppose they could withdraw the accreditation.”

Despite these big-picture recommendations, Foehl says he doesn’t see the resulting change being in conflict with Country Day’s core values. Instead, the new values will capitalize upon the old.

“That’s an important message,” he said. “We want to be more honest and open, more innovative and more collaborative – especially as we go into strategic planning.

“It’s a natural path of progress, change and development. We have a great opportunity to build on a lot of strengths of the school, but we are not replacing the old values.”

By Sahej Claire

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