Going through an accreditation process for the first time can be daunting, even if your institution is top-notch — which is very much how Marilyn Zinn regards St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads.
"We felt confident about who we were, but you never know when you‘re put under a microscope," remarked Zinn, who is entering her 10th year as principal.
Not to worry. When evaluators visited St. Mary Our Mother in late 2009, as a follow-up to the school’s 18-month self-evaluation, they were so impressed that Zinn was told it would basically be a formality for the accreditation to go through.
Still, it wasn’t until this past May that St. Mary Our Mother received official confirmation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The letter was sent by F. Laird Evans, president of the Middle States Commission on Elementary Schools, stating that St. Mary Our Mother has received a seven-year term of accreditation through May 2017.
"Oh, we were so excited," Zinn said of the school’s achievement. "I was glad when I could exhale and say, ‘Phew.’"
St. Mary Our Mother is the latest among numerous Catholic schools in the Rochester Diocese to become accredited by MSCES, which sets educational standards for schools in numerous states. The in-house accreditation process was chaired by Zinn and overseen by a steering committee with faculty, staff, parents and students assisting.
"I had a wonderful team that worked on this with me," Zinn said.
During its 18-month self-study, the committee examined MSCES criteria in such areas as mission and goals; leadership and governance; integrity; educational effectiveness; school-improvement planning; finances; facilities; climate and organization; health and safety; and student services and activities. Detailed results of the self-study were then filed with MSCES. From there, a team of evaluators came to St. Mary Our Mother School in December 2009 to gauge the self-study’s accuracy. Accreditation status was determined over the following few months.
This thorough scrutiny is employed not only to define a school’s strengths, but also detect areas that need improvement. Zinn said her steering committee focused early in its self-evaluation on student performance, particularly in math and technology, but in the end the most crucial issue that emerged was enrollment — "the elephant in the room," as she termed it. She said MSCES evaluators helped devise ways to enhance enrollment, starting with the premise that "we’re the best-kept secret in town and not to be shy about it."
Zinn said publicity has been stepped up in recent months via press releases but mostly through word of mouth, especially by parents of students. She gave special credit to Father Christopher Linsler, pastor of St. Mary Our Mother Parish, saying that "we have a very, very, very positive pastor who is not afraid to speak up and tell everybody how proud he is of this school."
In an era when most Catholic institutions are struggling to maintain enrollment, Zinn reported that these promotional efforts resulted in 129 students being registered for the 2010-11 school year — an increase from 109 in 2009-10 — at the prekindergarten through grade 6 school.
"And we have six on the waiting list," she added.
Schools that become accredited are charged by MSCES to maintain standards that led to the accreditation in the first place. Thus, St. Mary Our Mother has embarked upon a strategic plan that will include submitting progress reports to MSCES in upcoming years and welcoming evaluators for occasional field visits.
"We’ve already started. That’s part of Middle States — when they leave, that’s when your work starts," Zinn said.
Although it’s right back to work, Zinn said the St. Mary Our Mother community is still basking in the glory of its accreditation.
"Absolutely. I’ve got the big certificate framed," she said. "All kinds of good things are happening. We’re still riding that high."Tags: Catholic Schools, Chemung County News