Members of the St. Joseph School community received an early Christmas gift at the end of November: accreditation of the Auburn school through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary Schools.
"We received an official letter just before Thanksgiving. That was a nice holiday present," Principal Kathleen Coye said.
The accreditation is more than just a gift, however. It’s an official recognition of the school’s quality, and it’s something the faculty, staff and parents have been working hard to earn for nearly two years, Coye said. St. Joseph is one of 10 diocesan elementary schools that so far have been accredited by the Middle States Association. The first, St. Mary School in Canandaigua, received its accreditation last June.
Coye and her staff began looking into the possibility of becoming accredited with the Middle States Association at the suggestion of Dominican Sister Elizabeth Meegan, who served as superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools until June 2006. The Middle States Association is the second-oldest regional accreditor in the United States and works with both public and private schools from New York state to the District of Columbia and in several other regions throughout the world.
Coye took the first steps toward accreditation when she formed a committee of parents, faculty and staff that gathered information about the school community from other parents, faculty, staff members and the outside community. This material covered everything from the school’s mission and beliefs to its catechetical programs to an intense study of its curriculum, said committee cochair Patricia Healy.
After the information-gathering — or self-study — stage was completed, Healy and her fellow committee members compiled this information in a 149-page book, which they presented to a three-member team from the Middle States Association that visited the school in April.
"We had to present the book to them and then they went through the book page by page," said Healy, a third-grade teacher who has taught at the school for more than two decades. "They spent three days with us and visited all of the classes. They were actually here to see if we were doing what we said we were in our book, and obviously we were because we were accredited."
The self-study process was extremely involved and rather exhausting, Healy noted.
"It was daunting, actually, and I’m glad it’s over," she said.
Nonetheless, Healy and Coye both said they have already seen some beneficial fruits of the accreditation process.
"I think our curriculum is stronger because of it," Coye said.
This includes St. Joseph’s religion program, which was one of the areas examined during the self-study phase.
"We looked a lot at our religion program and how we could strengthen that in our school. We paid particular attention to having student-retreat days and making religion special at the school," Coye said.
As a result of this self-examination, St. Joseph students now enjoy two retreat days each year, one during Advent and another during Lent. During the most recent Advent retreat day on Dec. 5 Jan Borromei, catechetical leader for St. Ann, Sacred Heart and St. Mary parishes in Auburn, led the students in a number of spiritual activities at the school, while Adelaide Hutson, catechetical leader and liturgy coordinator at Auburn’s St. Alphonsus Parish, led the students on a tour of St. Alphonsus Church.
"That was a very strong positive experience, just to go around and learn the names of different parts of the church," Coye said. "Jan set up a prayer pilgrimage. They went to different places on school property, like our food pantry and … by the church. They prayed for people that were hungry and people that were homeless and people who needed prayers."
Experiences like this help make religion come alive for the students, Coye added.
During the self-study phase, the teachers gathered many times to discuss the school’s curriculum. Before this process began, it was unusual for teachers from the primary, intermediate and junior-high levels to all gather together to discuss curriculum, Healy said. These discussions allowed teachers to spot areas where their curriculums overlapped and will help them map out a more comprehensive curriculum with less duplication, she said.
This curriculum mapping is actually one of the two goals the St. Joseph School community committed to work on for the next five years. The other goal is to find new ways to incorporate technology into the rest of the curriculum and other subject areas, Healy said.
"We do have a timeline that we’ve set up for each of the goals that we’re working towards. Every year we have to file a report as to what we’ve accomplished as far as what we put in our timeline," she said.
Although work remains to be done, Coye and Healy are glad the intense work of the self-study is over and their efforts have been rewarded with accreditation.
"It’s nice to know that all of the work that went into it paid off," Healy said.