by MNOHS Executive Director Elissa Raffa

Today, MNOHS is celebrating our accreditation by North Central Association (AdvancED).  This is a huge milestone for MNOHS and for our community.  We’ve known since our site visit last June that we were recommended for accreditation, but we were waiting for the NCA Commission to take action at their semi-annual meeting yesterday.  After seven months of waiting, today is the first day that we can proclaim it publicly:  It’s official!  We’re accredited and we’re celebrating!

Of course we haven’t only been waiting.  As AdvancED describes it, accreditation is an ongoing, voluntary process of quality assurance.  The journey toward school improvement never stops, although there are important markers along the way.  At MNOHS, every day presents opportunities for creative problem solving.   Our faculty, staff, students and families collaborate to call into existence something that is rare on this earth: a credible small-school model of creative, connected online learning.  Our relationship with AdvancED over the past two years has given us opportunities to pause, look inward, and look outward.  Most gratifying of all, for me, was the experience of being seen—by my MNOHS colleagues, and by members of our Quality Assurance Review (QAR) visiting team.

It began with an application we submitted in October, 2010--just a form to fill out with basic contact information, but it started the clock ticking on our Readiness Self-Assessment.  In various committees, twelve members of the MNOHS faculty and staff (about 50% at the time) reviewed this six-page checklist of best practices and forged a consensus about how to rank ourselves on each one.  Although we’d had dozens of faculty and staff meetings about how to make things work better for our students, the readiness self-assessment provided an interesting external yard stick.

Next came our Readiness Site Visit.  As a fully online school, we set up a fully online visit.  Six faculty and staff members, including two faculty members of the MNOHS Board, met in our webinar room with Dr. Julia Williams from the University of Minnesota – Duluth.  She asked questions and we answered without rehearsal.  I remember listening to my colleagues’ comments and thinking, “Wow—they see what I see!”  Dr. Williams’ Readiness Report of January, 2011 described what she saw as our strengths and weaknesses.  I read that report and again thought, “Wow—I agree with every word.”  A lot of people need some time to understand our work, but this professor of education we met for only about two hours really got us.

For the next eighteen months, we worked on an in-depth self-assessment, using AdvancED’s protocol of ninety-eight indicators.  Almost immediately the indicators that needed attention showed themselves.  Fortunately, these matched MNOHS projects that were already in progress.  Although it was a lot of work to complete those projects on time, it all felt worthwhile.  Once again, the process confirmed our view of ourselves as a school.  All thirty members of the MNOHS faculty and staff played a part in designing, implementing, evaluating, and revising new procedures and systems that would move us several steps closer to our shared vision.  Among other improvements, our student leadership program and our tiered intervention system came to life during these months.

Self-Assessment came to a close in May, 2012 when we flipped a switch to share all our documentation with our QAR Team.    Dr. Williams, who we had already met online, was the team leader.  Other members of the team were Dr. Helen Mongan-Rallis, also a professor at UMD, and Mr. Joe Gagel, a retired high school principal.  They visited the MNOHS offices in Saint Paul for three days in late June, 2012.  Key members of our geographically dispersed faculty and staff also traveled to Saint Paul for the QAR visit.

For a mostly asynchronous online school, organizing students, families, faculty, and staff to show up in person and in the webinar for nterviews during summer break was no easy task but somehow it all came together.  My colleagues and I spent long hours in conversation with the QAR Team.  For me, the experience of being seen was once again astounding.  The conversations were not always easy but they were informative and challenging in that productive way that I hope to challenge my students.

Toward the end of their visit, the QAR Team closed the door for their deliberations.  MNOHS Board members, colleagues and I busied ourselves with summer school enrollments while we waited to be invited in.

And then it happened.  The door opened, we filed in, and Dr. Williams told us what they saw.  They really saw us!  They mentioned three organizational issues that still need some work—no news there.  Most gratifying of all, they gave us four strong commendations:

  1. The school exhibits strong, shared dedication from faculty and staff to the mission and vision.
  2. The school exhibits exceptional commitment to help each student succeed as an individual. 
  3. MNOHS has worked to achieve a high level of trust, establishing a safe and caring environment for all.
  4. MNOHS is fully committed to innovate and to provide resources to continuously improve.

Even one commendation, Dr. Williams told us, is rare for small schools, new candidate schools, and online schools—and MNOHS is all three!  Of the four, my favorites are #2 and #3.  Taken together, these are MNOHS.  Thirty-one words sum up, better than I ever could, the incredible work of the past nine years, and the vision of the next nine to come.

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